Why Astra’s Small Rocket Launch Is a Big Deal for NASA

Four small NASA-funded satellites disappeared on their way into space after being launched on a rocket built by Astra Space, a small, publicly traded rocket company based in Alameda, Calif.

there were satellites small experimental devices called cube satellitesand their loss can disrupt the research projects of the institutions that built them. But for Astra, the setback may be more important. A successful flight on Thursday could help it pitch a growing roster of start-ups jockeying for cheaper ways to transport objects into space. And the company’s recent launch failure shows how difficult it is to join the club.

The company’s 3.3 rocket took off from a launch pad in Cape Canaveral, Fla. at 3 PM Eastern time, sparking the cheers of a crowd of Astra employees broadcast on live video. But a few minutes after launch, on-board cameras were spotted as the rocket’s second-stage booster would split off to go deeper into orbit. showed that the booster was getting out of control.

“Unfortunately, we’ve heard that there has been an in-flight issue preventing our customer payloads from being delivered into orbit,” said Carolina Grossman, Astra’s director of product, commenting on the company’s sponsored launch livestream.

The stock market went through its spins as the rotating spacecraft’s onboard camera captured snapshots of Earth and space. Astra’s stock price has dropped so fast The New York Stock Exchange has stopped trading its shares about 22 minutes, then the trade resumed for about five minutes, then stopped again shortly after.

Failed mission is coming about three months after the company first reached orbit and in 2016, nearly six years after its founding, it put its test launches campaign and string of failures on a faster timeline than any other launch company.

“We had a problem with today’s flight,” said Chris Kemp, CEO of Astra. said on Twitter. “I am very sorry that we could not deliver our customer’s cargo. I’m with the team reviewing the data and will provide more information as soon as possible.”

With Thursday’s NASA launch, Astra has effectively started its launch business, looking to join more established players in the space like SpaceX; California-based company Rocket Lab, which has made nearly two dozen launches from New Zealand since 2018; and Virgin Orbit, the company founded by Richard Branson that dropped a rocket from a modified Boeing 747 jumbo jet to reach orbit.

The Astra flight would be a key demonstration of the company’s goal of launching its rocket from multiple launch pads in the United States; Removed all previous missions from Alaska. The flight was also launched using new Federal Aviation Administration licensing procedures. The agency that oversees launch safety on the ground has sought to modernize surveillance missions in recent years amid a surge in spaceflight activity from a number of new rocket companies.

Many more companies like Astra are aiming to reach orbit and start their own commercial satellite launch businesses.

Firefly Aerospace, a Texas-based start-up, conducted an unsuccessful test launch in California last September. Since then, the progress Paralyzed by a US foreign investment panellate last year, he raised national security concerns over a Ukraine-linked investor who had to sell his stake so the company could continue with test launches.

Other companies are further from the launch pad. Relativity Space, a Long Beach, California-based firm, will rely on a small 3D-printed rocket called Terran 1, which it aims to launch from Florida this year. ABL Space Systems, another small launch company based in El Segundo, California, Targets mid-2022 for RS1 rocket launch.

While NASA was a client of Astra on Thursday, The US national security apparatus played a key role in shaping the ambitions of these small launch companies.. As Earth’s orbit becomes a battleground for military and geopolitical dominance, Astra and other companies are seeking short launch capability from multiple potential regions. This would support the Pentagon’s goal of having the ability to launch spy satellites or other closely held military assets into space in an emergency.

Astra’s failed orbital journey on Thursday underlines the daunting challenges for all these small companies. It reached space on its second launch test in late 2020, but failed to enter orbit. In its next test months later, the rocket swung sideways on the launch pad before taking off and was unable to return to orbit. The company finally reached orbit by sending a test payload from the US Space Force in November 2021.

“It’s incredibly difficult,” said Bradley Smith, NASA’s director of launch services, who oversees the program that funds Astra’s mission on Saturday. “When a company says it has 12 months to go public, they usually have two and a half years to reach the pad. Our metrics tell us that.”

“And in the first three launches of a given payload, one of those three launches will fail a third of the time,” he said.

Bringing a rocket into business operations for a diverse customer landscape is no easy task, and many companies have created new revenue streams to stay afloat. Astra, Rocket Lab, and Virgin Orbit went public last year through a merger with special-purpose buyout companies, or SPACs. Astra had a cash boost of $500 million when it listed its shares. Virgin Orbit brought in $483 million.

“After we demonstrated our technology and got it up and running,” Dan Hart, Virgin Orbit’s CEO, said of his company’s LauncherOne rocket, “it became clear that we needed augmentation and needed capital to make it happen.”

Mr. Hart added that going public through a SPAC opens up other opportunities. “It puts us in a place that can give us other tools and flexibility,” he said.

But going public in a rocket company’s infancy creates more pressure for success at a time when engineers are still experimenting and learning about the development of a rocket and failure is expected. But investors may view events both inside and outside the launch pad as potentially trading risks, as implied by the brief freeze of Astra shares on Thursday.

While companies like Astra have barely escaped the launch pad, they may be looking for ways to diversify their businesses.

Caleb Henry, a launch industry analyst at Quilty Analytics, said that some companies that go public using SPACs “see a need to acquire other companies to get anywhere near their revenue projections to the market.” ”

Astra’s Mr Kemp said acquiring smaller companies specializing in making high-tech spacecraft components will be critical to the growth of many small launch companies once they go public, a strategy he proposes is aimed at expanding commercial services, he said.

Astra last year acquired Apollo Fusion, a company specializing in small, electric propulsion systems for satellites in space. Rocket Lab, which has had many successful launches to date, made similar moves when it bought three companies after going public in August last year, spending a total of about $162 million.

These recent efforts to expand revenue sources are partly a result of shifting launch demand from satellite companies. Companies developing large networks of thousands of internet-beam satellites, such as Amazon’s Kuiper projectLook for more and larger rockets to launch large payloads of satellites into space at once. Some companies, such as Relativity and Rocket Lab, are planning to build larger rockets to meet this demand.

“It’s a big bold bet, but I think it’s the right one because it’s very clear where the market opportunity really is,” said Tim Ellis, CEO of Relativity, when speaking of his company’s plan to start developing a larger rocket, the Terran R. even before its first rocket was launched.

ABL Space Systems could follow the trend of designing larger rockets. “We see the same sources of demand driving these decisions and we hope to respond to that,” said Dan Piemont, the company’s chief financial officer. The first launch of the company’s smaller rocket could be delayed from early 2022 After a test crash in January.

Astra has not announced any plans for a larger rocket. But it continued its goal of launching up to 1,102 pounds of satellites into low Earth orbit in the future, more than double the capacity of its current rocket.

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