While the world continues to look towards the successes of companies like SpaceX in the aerospace industry, it is worth considering that not every company is quite as successful.
One firm that has been trying to get off the ground but still can’t seem to catch a break is Astra - a rocket launch startup that is once again in the news.
Another Unfortunate Failure
Late last month, Astra attempted the third launch for its Launch Vehicle 0006 at the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Alaska. Sadly, the launch didn’t go as planned. The rocket suffered a fault just two minutes after liftoff, causing the company to terminate the flight and return to the drawing board.
Initial reports suggested that something was off from the beginning of the spaceflight as Launch Vehicle 0006 moved to the side as soon as the liftoff sequence was initiated. This is in contrast to conventional rocket dynamics, where the vehicle moves straight upwards from the launch pad. While the rocket recovered and soon moved towards the sky, it was only able to reach 20.5 miles in altitude before it shut down.
The mission was eventually ended right around “max q” - the point when a rocket’s mechanical stress reaches its zenith. At a live webcast, Carolina Grossman, Astra’s Director of Product Management, explained that they would have to go back to see what went wrong. Grossman added that the company was very optimistic about future flights and that they would get things right the next time around.
Engine Failures Delay Astra’s Gratification
There had been a great deal of excitement around Launch Vehicle 0006. The rocket - which stood at 13 meters - was a member of Astra’s Rocket 3.3 series. Just two weeks earlier, company chief executive Chris Kemp confirmed that it had gotten permission from the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) to conduct its orbital launch.
It had carried a test payload for the Space Test Program at the U.S. Defense Department. Sadly, things weren’t to be.
A further report from Astra claimed that one of the rocket’s engines had failed during the launch. This failure led to an imbalance in the rocket, causing it to glide horizontally as its automated controls were unable to keep it on track.
The most recent setback is putting additional pressure on Astra. The company - which was founded in 2016 - has a goal to become a leader in the market for small satellite launches by offering low-cost and ever-changing rockets. The company has refined its launch system to be very responsive and mobile, with its rockets being transported to the launch site instead of being assembled there.
At a company Q&A session, Chief Technology Officer Adam London explained that affordability is their biggest goal:
"You don't find any rockets today that are that affordable. Astra was put together to figure out how you bridge that gap: how you make lots of rockets, so people can leverage easier and faster access to space to do great and interesting things," London said.
The Pressure Piles Up
But Astra hasn’t had success with launches. It launched its Rocket 3.1 in September 2020, with the craft eventually suffering a guidance issue just after launch. Rocket 3.1 eventually came tumbling down to the Earth.
Next up was Rocket 3.2, which had some success with its launch. Sadly, the rocket ran out of fuel just before getting the critical escape orbital velocity. Building on the success of Rocket 3.2, Astra addressed the fuel problem and optimized the rocket’s upper-stage performance even more. Sadly, this next launch still didn’t measure up.
Besides being unable to save face, Astra will now be facing a great deal of pressure from investors. Back in February, Astra completed a merger with Holicity - a special-purpose acquisition company (SPAC) - to list on the NASDAQ exchange. This made it the first space launch company to list on an American exchange, under the ticker “ASTR.”
Under the agreement, Astra got $500 million in cash for expansion and development. $300 million was from Holicity, while $200 million came from private investment in public equity (PIPE) from the investment management giant BlackRock. All in all, the company was given a valuation of $2.1 billion.
Now that launches still haven’t been conquered, Astra and its management will feel a great deal of pressure to get things right. Perhaps on the next trial.