Astra becomes fastest rocket company to reach orbit

LV0007 leaves the ground on November 20, 2021.
Enlarge / LV0007 leaves the ground on November 20, 2021.

Astra

Astra never set out to build the best rocket, the biggest rocket, or the safest rocket. The California space company just wanted to build a rocket that only pretty well, and do it quickly.

Early Saturday morning, Astra proved the value of this philosophy by successfully launching a dismantled rocket for the first time. The mission hoisted a small test payload for the US Space Force into an orbit 500 km above the planet.

The launch took place five years and one month after the founding of Astra by Chris Kemp and Adam London in October 2016. With this weekend’s success, Astra became the fastest company to reach orbit with a privately developed liquid fuel rocket. With its Falcon 1 rocket, SpaceX took six years and four months. Firefly, Virgin Orbit, and Rocket Lab all took seven years or more to successfully reach orbit.

To go fast, Astra decided to spend less time designing its rocket and more time testing it in real conditions. A first attempt at a suborbital launch was made within two years of the creation of the company, and Astra has since reiterated the vehicle’s design. Using an iterative design, Astra had to deal with several failures along the way.

Attempted launch of the Astra LV0007.

“I think this flight really proves the approach we’ve taken,” Kemp said on a call with reporters Monday morning. “We have done it at an all-time high thanks to this iterative approach.”

Astra has big plans, with the ambition to become more than a start-up company. He wants to build a bigger rocket, his own spacecraft, and has even asked the Federal Communications Commission to develop a mega-constellation in low earth orbit. But the essential first step before embarking on these plans was to successfully reach orbit. And as a publicly traded company, iterative design or not, Astra probably couldn’t have survived too many failures before investors began to doubt its technical skills.

Dubbed LV0007, it was the seventh rocket built by Astra. The first two models were strictly intended for suborbital testing. The third rocket was lost in a fire on a launch pad. In September 2020, the fourth rocket – the company’s first actual orbital launch attempt – failed after about 30 seconds due to a guiding error. In a subsequent attempt in December 2020, LV0005 reached space but did not have enough thruster to reach orbit.

This second flight demonstrated perfect performance of the first stage, separation of the stages and a second combustion of the engine. The company’s expectations were therefore high on August 28, 2021, when the LV0006 took off. But shortly after the engine was fired, the rocket moved more horizontally than vertically before correcting itself and following an upward trajectory. After 148 seconds, a range security officer terminated the flight after he exited his launch lane. One of the five engines had stopped prematurely.

During the three-month LV0007 campaign, Astra faced several days of below-freezing temperatures at its launch site on Kodiak Island, Alaska. An 8-inch water pipe froze, Kemp said. The launch team had to rework some of its procedures. But this freezing-weather experience bodes well for launching from a variety of environments in the future, Kemp said. The company will likely begin its launch from the Cape Canaveral space station in 2022.

Now that Astra has successfully reached orbit, the company can switch from “test mode” to production of its “Rocket 3” series, Kemp said. This small booster is capable of sending 50 kg into an orbit with an average inclination of 500 km. Astra is planning several more Rocket 3 flights, priced at around $ 3.5 million per launch. Then he plans to upgrade to “Rocket 4”, which will have the capacity to lift around 200 kg in low earth orbit. Astra hopes to maintain a similar launch price, despite the increased performance.

Although there are more and more small launchers online, demand appears to be there for Astra’s services, which are the cheapest per launch in the industry. Kemp said Astra had “over 50” launches under contract. Now, with orbit reached, the business can really focus on meeting this demand.

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