Astra unveils plans for frequent, low-cost launches
MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — A small launch vehicle company emerged from stealth mode this week, but is still keeping many details about its plans and capabilities behind closed doors.
Astra, a company based in Alameda, California, formally announced its plans Feb. 3, an unveiling timed to the publication of a profile of the company in Bloomberg Businessweek. That included the company’s first public website, complete with a two-minute video introducing the company.
“Our mission is to provide the first daily space delivery in history,” the narrator of the video states. “We’re the world’s largest space company that you’ve never heard of.”
Many in the space industry, though, had heard of Astra, which also went by the name of Astra Space in regulatory filings and Stealth Space Company in job listings. The company performed two suborbital test launches from Pacific Spaceport Complex – Alaska in 2018, both of which the Federal Aviation Administration, which licensed them, classified as mishaps. On its website, Astra said the first mission was “launched successfully,” but notes the second launch “was shorter than planned” without elaborating.
Even before those launches the company’s activities were visible. Shortly before the first launch a traffic helicopter for a television station in San Francisco spotted one of the company’s rockets being tested on the tarmac of the former naval air station that’s home to Astra and its 250,000-square-foot factory.
The company is developing a small launch vehicle designed to place up to about 200 kilograms in low Earth orbit, according to the Bloomberg article, and do so frequently. Company executives said in the article their goal is to be able to perform hundreds of launches a year at a price per launch as low as $1 million.
The company, though, has released few details about its vehicle, identified on one page of its website as simply “Rocket 3.0.” That includes a lack of information about its payload performance to various orbits or other technical characteristics. While the company has done interviews with at least two other publications, it did not respond to a Feb. 3 email to the press contact on its website.
Astra’s emergence from stealth mode also coincided with the SmallSat Symposium, which started Feb. 3 here. The company was a “platinum” sponsor of the event, but had only a private meeting room and not an exhibit booth, unlike several other launch companies at the event such as Firefly Aerospace, Rocket Lab and Virgin Orbit. Fred Kennedy, the former director of the Pentagon’s Space Development Agency who recently joined Astra as its vice president for future missions, spoke at the conference, but limited his remarks to national security space issues.
A more important milestone is the company’s first orbital launch. The company told Bloomberg that they planned to attempt the launch no earlier than Feb. 21 from Alaska. A Feb. 5 “Local Notice to Mariners” document by the U.S. Coast Guard’s Juneau, Alaska, office included a notice about a rocket launch from Pacific Spaceport Complex – Alaska scheduled for Feb. 21 between 3:30 and 7:00 p.m. Eastern. That launch window will be available daily through March 1. That document does not specify who will be conducting the launch.
The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation issued a launch license to Astra Jan. 9 for that mission. The license is valid for up to three launches of the rocket from that site over a two-year period, each placing payloads identified only as cubesats into polar orbits.
The upcoming launch will also be part of Astra’s efforts to win the DARPA Launch Challenge as the competition’s sole remaining team. Astra can win $2 million if it successfully placed a DARPA-supplied payload into space. The company can win an additional $10 million if it performs a second launch from a separate location “within weeks” of the first, according the competition’s website.
Astra was one of three teams, along with Vector and Virgin Orbit, that DARPA picked as finalists in the competition in April 2019. Vector withdrew in September because of financial problems that eventually led to a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing, while Virgin Orbit dropped out in October to focus on other customers.
When DARPA announced the finalists, it identified Astra as only a “stealth” team that “requested anonymity for the first few months of the Challenge,” according to a DARPA statement announcing the finalists. While the competition website still refers to the company as a stealth team, a DARPA spokesperson confirmed Feb. 5 that Astra was that team, and its upcoming launch the first of two for the competition.
DARPA has not disclosed what site Astra would use for the second launch, should that first mission be successful. DARPA identified four potential sites that, besides Alaska, include Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia and Naval Outlying Field on San Nicolas Island off the California coast.
Astra filed a request for special temporary authority with the FCC Jan. 6, seeking permission for S-band telemetry for a launch from Wallops during a six-month period starting March 1. “The operation is to launch a small satellite into low earth orbit. This will be a launch from Wallops in support of the DARPA challenge,” the application states. The company has a similar application for its Alaska launch, but not for either California site.
Astra has not disclosed any customers for its vehicle beyond its DARPA Launch Challenge missions. The company’s website offers customers the ability to reserve payload space for cubesats on a schedule of such missions. Four are listed from October 2020 to July 2021 to sun-synchronous orbits, while three from March to September 2021 are available to orbits at an inclination of nine degrees, consistent with a launch from Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, a site that the company is said to be pursuing.
Astra’s goal of high-volume, low-cost launch has gotten a skeptical reception from some in industry who doubt there are enough customers to support such a high launch date, or that it would be lucrative enough for investors who have, according to the Bloomberg account, put more than $100 million into Astra.
“With the market the way it is, there’s not 100 launches a year for everybody to launch right now,” said Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, a company with its own aspirations to ultimately launch on a weekly basis. “If a whole lot of extra capacity comes onto the market, I’m not sure what everybody’s going to fly.”
In a Feb. 4 interview, Beck said that Rocket Lab’s workforce increased from 100 at the time of its first launch to more than 500 today as it moves into operations. If Astra has to do the same to achieve the monthly launch rate Rocket Lab is pursuing, “the business plan doesn’t close” because of the expenses. “You have to be doing 50, 100 launches a year for that type of business case to close.”