Astra emphasizes rapid iteration in its quest for low-cost, rapid launch
WASHINGTON — As Astra prepares for its first orbital launch attempt, the company is setting expectations accordingly and taking the long view towards its goal of frequent, low-cost access to space.
The launch window for Astra’s first orbital launch from Pacific Spaceport Complex – Alaska now opens Feb. 25, according to a U.S. Coast Guard notice published Feb. 12. The company will have daily windows from 3:30 to 7:00 p.m. Eastern through March 3.
In a Feb. 13 interview, Chris Kemp, chief executive of Astra, confirmed that launch window but didn’t give a specific date when the company would make its first launch attempt. The rocket, dubbed “One of Three,” will be flying to the spaceport on Kodiak Island, Alaska, in a few days.
That launch, he confirmed, will be the first of two missions as part of the DARPA Launch Challenge, a competition by DARPA to demonstrate responsive launch capabilities. Astra is the sole remaining competitor in the challenge after the other two finalists, Vector and Virgin Orbit, dropped out last year.
Kemp said the company has yet to receive the payload provided by DARPA that the company will launch on that mission. “I think it shows up any day now,” he said. “Part of the challenge is not knowing what the payload is and integrating the payload at the last minute.” He added he expected DARPA to disclose more details about the competition on or around Feb. 18.
Astra will receive $2 million if it successfully places that payload into orbit, and $10 million if it successfully performs a second launch from another site, which would be either Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia or Naval Outlying Field on San Nicolas Island off the California coast. Kemp said the company has been preparing for launching from any of those three sites, including filing an application with the Federal Communications Commission for a license supporting a Wallops launch, but has not been informed by DARPA which site they would use.
However, Kemp said that the company, which emerged from stealth mode just this month, was aware of the long odds of success for the first orbital launch of any rocket. “The fact that we’re talking now to the press is really a function of wanting to make sure that, prior to the DARPA Launch Challenge, we don’t frame everything around this first launch,” he said. “It’s not our expectation that our first launch will succeed, but it is our expectation that a campaign will succeed if we launch, learn and iterate.”
He said he expected “a few attempts” before succeeding to place a payload in orbit. He based on that on historic estimates that it takes “somewhere between three and four” launches before a vehicle is successful. SpaceX, for example, did not make orbit until the fourth flight of its Falcon 1 rocket. However, Rocket Lab achieved orbit on its second Electron mission after a problem with range safety equipment, and not the rocket itself, on its first launch.
Astra is preparing for that by building three of its “Rocket 3.0” vehicles together. Kemp said the second rocket is about 90% complete and the third 40% complete. “We’re able to produce a rocket a month,” he said. “That allows us to, if this first flight isn’t entirely successful, make whatever changes we’d like to make,” he said. “It will not be a year before we launch again. It will be maybe a month or two before we launch again.”
Once Astra does reach orbit, be it on its first launch or third, the company is ready to move ahead with a “big long list of satellites on manifest.” He didn’t disclose any specific customers, but said it included a mix of commercial and government customers willing to fly an untried vehicle to get they payloads into orbit.
“There’s just so little supply of launches when customers want to fly and where they want to fly that they’re willing to launch on a rocket that has no success record,” he said. “The fact that we have so many customers waiting in line without yet establishing that track record is pretty encouraging to us.”
The key to Astra’s success, he argued, is the ability to iterate quickly, incorporating improvements in the design of the rocket. The company has already done that through its first two rockets, suborbital vehicles launched from Alaska in 2018. The first rocket had a carbon composite nose cone, which cost about $250,000 to make, which was close to the target cost of the entire vehicle. “We could not use composites, period,” he said, with the company switching to an aluminum structure that is cheaper and faster to produce.
Astra, unlike many others in the launch business, is eschewing the use of additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing. “We do 3D-print two components on the rocket today, and we are moving away from that as fast as we possibly can, because those 3D-printed components cost as much as the entire rocket.”
That iteration will continue after successfully reaching orbit. Kemp said a version 4 of the rocket will be able to place 50 kilograms into a sun-synchronous orbit. “We think that is about right for where the market is today,” he said. He expected Astra to produce 25 of those, of which more than half have been sold.
That iteration also reflects competition from Rocket Lab’s Electron. After Electron entered service Astra made changes to the design of its rocket, including new engines with double the thrust from those used on its 2.0 version of the rocket and larger tanks. “We were able to quickly respond to Rocket Lab’s successful orbital flight,” Kemp said. “We decided to double the mass of our rocket so we could directly compete with Rocket Lab. That is something that didn’t take is five years to do or 11 years to do. It took us one year.”
Future versions will be driven by market needs, including both vehicle capacity and launch rate. Astra, in an introductory video posted on its website, spoke of offering daily access to space, a goal he said provides a “north star” to guide the company’s efforts that will take three to five generations of vehicles to reach.
“You get there by, frankly, iterating,” he said. “With each generation of the rocket we’ll have an opportunity to look at the market and understand what the demand looks like, and then design the rocket for a certain production rate.”
Kemp emphasized near the end of the half-hour interview that the company won’t be discouraged if its upcoming launch fails. “If this launch isn’t entirely successful, we’re going to go do it again,” he said. “We’re going to iterate towards orbit.”