Astra rocket damaged in pre-launch tests

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WASHINGTON — Small launch vehicle startup Astra has postponed its next launch attempt after the rocket was damaged in what local officials say was an “anomaly” during a prelaunch test.

Astra had been preparing for a launch of its “Rocket 3.0” vehicle as soon as March 24 from Pacific Spaceport Complex – Alaska. A previous launch attempt March 2, part of the now-completed DARPA Launch Challenge, was scrubbed less than a minute before liftoff after sensors reported anomalous data.

However, notices to airmen, or NOTAMs, posted by the Federal Aviation Administration restricting airspace around and downrange from the launch site for launch attempts March 24 and 25 were taken down late March 23.

In an email late March 23, Chris Kemp, chief executive of Astra, said the rocket had been damaged in prelaunch testing earlier in the day. “We’ll be rescheduling launch,” he said, but had not selected a new launch date. He did not elaborate on the damage the rocket sustained.

Local radio station KMXT reported March 23 that there had been an “anomaly” at the launch site on Kodiak Island that prompted an emergency response. There were no injuries reported, but the area was cordoned off.

“The area is still hazardous and should be avoided. There will be personnel on site overnight to monitor,” Mark Lester, chief executive of Alaska Aerospace, which operates the spaceport, told KMXT after the emergency response concluded.

Astra has publicly not disclosed details about the prelaunch anomaly or even that it was planning another launch. The company has gone quiet since it scrubbed its last launch attempt March 2 at the end of the DARPA Launch Challenge. Kemp said at a post-scrub media teleconference that he expected it would be “a week or two” before the company would be ready to make another launch attempt.

The company called this particular vehicle “1 of 3” as it was the first of three similar vehicles in production. In an interview in February, Kemp said the second vehicle was 90% complete and the third 40% complete. “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,” Kemp said in that earlier interview.

Travel restrictions linked to the coronavirus pandemic could delay any future launch attempts, particularly if those attempts require Astra to bring new personnel to the launch site. Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced March 23 that all people arriving in the state, be they from other parts of the United States or from other nations, must self-quarantine for 14 days after arrival.