Astra Rocket 3.2 launch
Astra's Rocket 3.2 vehicle lifts off from Kodiak Island, Alaska, Dec. 15. Credit: Astra/John Kraus

WASHINGTON — Small launch vehicle developer Astra Space fell just short of reaching orbit on its second launch attempt Dec. 15, but the company is “beyond ecstatic” with the performance of the rocket.

Astra’s Rocket 3.2 vehicle lifted off from Pacific Spaceport Complex – Alaska at 3:55 p.m. Eastern. The company did not provide a live webcast of the launch but instead offered a series of updates via Twitter as the vehicle made it through its initial phases of flight, including main engine cutoff, stage separation and passing the Karman Line, the 100-kilometer altitude commonly used as the demarcation of space.

The rocket’s upper stage fired its single engine, gaining altitude and speed. However, Chris Kemp, chief executive of Astra, said in a call with reporters that the upper stage engine shut down about 12 to 15 seconds early when it depleted its fuel. The rocket reached a peak altitude of 390 kilometers and speed of 7.2 kilometers per second, about 0.5 kilometers short of orbital velocity.

While falling just shy of reaching orbit, Kemp said Astra considered the launch a success. “The hardware on this system performed flawlessly through the entire flight,” he said. “This far exceeded our team’s expectations.” Fine-tuning the mixture ratio between kerosene fuel and liquid oxygen should allow the vehicle to reach orbit on its next launch.

Rocket 3.2 was the second in a series of three launches Astra announced earlier this year that would demonstrate it could achieve orbit. On its first, Rocket 3.1 in September, the guidance system induced an oscillation in the rocket shortly after liftoff, triggering a shutdown of the engines. That rocket crashed a short distance from the launch site.

Kemp said the company would have been happy on this latest launch to get through a successful burn of the first stage. “Most of the team would have called it a day and felt we had a very successful flight because it would have meant the first stage of the rocket was de-risked,” he said.

Astra operates launches with just a team of five at the launch site itself. That team had to quarantine when one person tested positive for COVID-19 last week. Kemp said Astra sent a backup team of five people to take over launch preparations. “That team was able to set up the launch system, set up the rocket and launch the rocket in just a few days,” he said. “Had that not been possible, we certainly would not have launched today.”

This launch did not carry a payload, but did simulate payload deployment to test that system. Kemp said that, given what Rocket 3.2 achieved, they expect to carry a payload on the next launch, Rocket 3.3. That vehicle is about 75% complete. “We’ll be launching it in a few months, as soon as we can get back up to Kodiak,” he said.

The success of this launch, Kemp argued, is a vindication of the company’s iterative approach to launch vehicle development. Prior to September’s Rocket 3.1 launch, the company attempted a launch of its Rocket 3.0 in March, only to have the vehicle destroyed because of a fueling mishap during a dress rehearsal. It also performed two suborbital test launches in 2018.

Kemp, in the call, thanked the company’s investors who “really bet on a strategy that is unlike any other company that has ever attempted this: that we would intentionally fly things that we knew wouldn’t quite work just so that we could learn from the flights. Today demonstrates that this is the right strategy.”

The company plans to continue to revise the vehicle design even after reaching orbit to increase performance and decrease cost. At some point, though, the company will produce a set of “a dozen or so” identical copies of the same design, Kemp said.

“This outcome surprised us and is certainly a nice Christmas present for the team,” he said of the launch. “It’s been a tough year for the team and I think we all needed this victory. We’re just beyond ecstatic by today’s events.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...