Astra ready for commercial operations after first successful launch
WASHINGTON — After reaching orbit for the first time, Astra Space executives said they are ready to begin commercial operations of their small launch vehicle and scale up production, while also preparing to test a new vehicle next year.
Astra’s Rocket 3.3 reached orbit Nov. 20 on a mission for the U.S. Space Force. The launch, from Kodiak Island, Alaska, placed into orbit a small payload for the Space Force, which remained attached to the upper stage, measuring environmental conditions during the rocket’s ascent.
In a call with reporters Nov. 22, Astra executives said they were still reviewing the data from the flight, the company’s fourth attempt to reach orbit and the first successful one, but were pleased with the performance of the rocket. “The launch and the flight was really nominal, including stage separation,” said Benjamin Lyon, executive vice president and chief engineer at Astra.
The company said the rocket placed the upper stage and its attached payload into its planned 500-kilometer orbit at an inclination of 86 degrees. Data from the U.S. Space Force shows the stage is in an orbit between 438 and 507 kilometers altitude at an inclination of 86.01 degrees.
The launch of this rocket, called LV0007, demonstrated changes made after the failure of LV0006 in August. The launch failed when one of five first stage engines shut down within a second of liftoff after propellant leaked from disconnected lines and ignited in the base of the vehicle.
It also demonstrated Astra’s ability to work in adverse conditions, namely cold temperatures. “We learned a ton beyond the vehicle, about the entire launch system that supports it,” he said.
That included a 20-centimeter water main that froze solid at the pad, said Chris Kemp, chief executive of Astra. “We had never operated in these freezing temperatures before,” he said.
The initial review of the data suggests no changes are needed for LV0008, the next Rocket 3.3 vehicle nearing completion at Astra’s headquarters in Alameda, California. The company said in an earnings call earlier this month that LV0008 could launch later this year, although Kemp did not give a launch date in the briefing.
“We’re working out all the details about the dates and the range,” he said. “Don’t expect a long wait for the next flight.”
The company hasn’t disclosed the payload for the next launch, but Kemp said the company was ready to move into commercial service with Rocket 3.3. “We’re out of the test flight phase,” he said. “We’ll be resuming with commercial payloads for our customers in low Earth orbit.” He added there will be test flights next year of Rocket 4, a larger version of the vehicle, while Rocket 3 commercial launches continue.
While dozens of companies are working on small launch vehicles, only a handful have successfully reached orbit, including Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit and several Chinese ventures. Astra says it will now turn its attention from development to production of the Rocket 3 vehicles.
“Astra and only a few other companies — I can count them on one hand — have done this ever. For all the companies that try and all the money that goes into this, very few companies actually succeed,” Kemp said. “This is really hard, and it’s also going to be hard to scale up production and do this reliably. We’re just getting started here. There’s a lot of hard work to do.”