Astra’s 100-year plan: Q&A with CEO Chris Kemp
In February 2020, Astra was just starting to open up to the public. The small launch vehicle developer, which had kept a profile so low that it called itself “Stealth Space Company” in job listings, began talking to the media about its plans as it was preparing its first orbital launch attempt from Kodiak, Alaska, as part of the DARPA Launch Challenge.
A year later, Astra was going public. The company announced Feb. 2 it would merge with Holicity, a special-purpose acquisition company (SPAC) founded by Craig McCaw, who a quarter-century ago led Teledesic, the failed broadband satellite constellation. That merger, along with additional investment, will provide Astra with nearly $500 million in cash and value the company at $2.1 billion, with its shares traded on the Nasdaq exchange. Astra will use the funding to scale up production of its rockets, with a goal of launching nearly daily by 2025, and start a new line of modular satellite platforms.
Chris Kemp, chief executive and co-founder of Astra, spoke with SpaceNews senior staff writer Jeff Foust a few days after the announcement, discussing the merger, Astra’s plans for ramping up launch activity and how it will compete against both small and large launch providers. The following is a condensed version of that conversation.
Why did you choose to merge with a SPAC rather than a traditional IPO or raising another round?
We’re offering a cheaper, more efficient and less risky way for companies to get to space at Astra. So, it’s natural that we would take a cheaper, more efficient and less risky way to get to public markets. I think a SPAC, for us, was by far the most efficient path to public markets.
And how did you choose Holicity?
From our perspective, there couldn’t be better partners out there for us. As we looked at the options in front of us, we got really excited about the background that Craig and the other folks had going back to the Teledesic days. They had a lot of pain that they felt trying to pioneer the first low Earth orbit communications constellation decades before Starlink. Launch was a big factor that scuttled their dreams.
We’ve all seen what SpaceX has done solving that problem. We think there’s another opportunity that is very different, which is the hundreds of companies that are trying to solve a number of very important problems here on Earth from space, and we’re building a platform to address everything else. We believe fundamentally that small launches from anywhere on Earth anywhere in space means we can serve that market better.
What is McCaw providing Astra besides the capital from the merger?
He’s been very actively involved. They’re not passive. He has participated in many calls we’ve had with investors and he’s joining my board. He’s someone who I am really looking forward to learning from and working with, as we build this company.
On your last launch in December you nearly reached orbit. What are your plans for your next launch?
There was a really careful look at everything from that flight. The fuel mixture was a bit off and changing the mixture would have easily put that payload in orbit. The same flight from a different spaceport or sent to a different orbit would have reached orbit. So, the system completely proved itself, and we will adjust the mixture ratio on the fuel. I think the next fight will be a commercial flight this summer with a payload on it. We’re ramping up our commercial launch operations this year. We’ll have monthly launches, starting in the fourth quarter.
Will you make any changes to the rocket besides the fuel ratio?
No changes. We’re ramping up production on this rocket. It’ll be called Rocket 3.3. And we’ll make lots of 3.3’s. There will be some little updates here and there, but it is exactly the same rocket configuration — engine, software, hardware — with minor enhancements, things that you’d want to do if you’re going to make lots of them.
What about performance improvements?
The team will start working on a rocket that can carry about 100 kilograms next year, after this gets handed off to production. There’s a whole roadmap that talks about effectively moving to about 300 kilograms to a 500 kilometer sun-synchronous reference orbit by 2023. In 2025, we hope to be hitting our daily launch cadence with a vehicle that can throw about 300 kilograms to a reference orbit. Ultimately, that means we can meet the needs of all these megaconstellations like Kuiper. The target for the company is being a megaconstellation provider.
The conventional wisdom for megaconstellations is that you launch them in bulk on larger rockets, then use smaller vehicles for individual replacements. Can Astra compete with larger rockets on a cost-per-kilogram basis?
It’s really not the right strategy for any megaconstellation to have a single launch provider. All these companies, with the exception of SpaceX that owns their launch capability, will probably select two or three different providers, so they’re not locked in. But that leaves a remainder problem because the number of satellites that you can put on different rockets varies. Astra fills an important need, where we can fill in those gaps. You can get a batch of them where they need to go on a large rocket, and then you can fill in the remainder with Astra.
How does Astra stack up against the competition, be it other small launch vehicle companies or larger ones like SpaceX?
We’ve done everything fast. We achieved this big milestone in December I think twice as fast as SpaceX and three times faster than Rocket Lab and Virgin Orbit. We’ve already sold 50 launches. There’s so much demand and so many opportunities out there that we had to capitalize the business, to build the infrastructure to go and ramp up our launch rate and our production rate.
One thing these customers all have in common is they all want to go to different places, on different schedules. That’s not possible with the SpaceX [rideshare] launch. That launch might have gotten a bunch of small satellites into one place in space, but those companies had to wait a very long time for that launch.
It’s kind of like Airbus 380s versus small commuter jets. It’s never going to make sense to fly an Airbus 380 to Sacramento. You’re going to want to fly a small Embraer jet. So we’re doing the commuter jet, we’re filling in all the gaps. That’s, I think, a rising tide that will float all rocket ships, whether they’re big or small.
How are you planning to scale up production to reach that daily launch cadence?
We were producing about a rocket a quarter last year. We don’t intend to do more than that this year, because we’ll be investing this capital to scale the factory and really build the team out to start really preparing for monthly launch operations next year. We’ll be building out this quarter of a million square foot space, where we built about 100,000 square feet so far. We’re going to start construction in a few weeks and will be bringing in a whole bunch of new infrastructure to start scaling up production.
What approaches are you using to increase production?
It’s not like we’re making a handcrafted machine. We’re using aluminum. We can really manufacture these things at rate without a lot of labor and without a lot of custom machinery. It’s welding, it’s riveting. There’ll be robots. It will be a pretty lean factory operation. Yes, it’s less efficient than a carbon fiber rocket, but our goal as a company was never to make the most efficient rocket. It was to make the highest margin, most profitable company at scale. That’s what separates Astra from everyone else.
In addition to rockets, you revealed in the merger announcement that you’re also developing a satellite bus that can carry customer payloads. Was that something you were planning all along?
It has been but it hasn’t been something we’ve talked about. We didn’t want to talk about it until we achieved this first milestone of reaching space with something that could deliver satellites. Now that we’ve got this milestone behind us, we’re opening up a little bit more about the long-term plan for the company. In fact, one of the things I’m working on now is the 100-year plan for the company. We’re really focused on this trillion-dollar economy that is largely focused on improving life on Earth from space, not going off Earth and settling other planets.
If you think about every company that has ever started in this industry, they have to build the satellites from scratch, or they’re using this cottage industry of companies that integrate them. We see a model that’s much more like Apple or Dell, where customers just load software and they plug in a peripheral. And the peripheral is the camera, the sensor, the radio that is unique to their application. I think there’s a unique opportunity for us to completely turn the industry on its head by thinking about how we prioritize what’s actually happening in space versus the structural mechanics of how this industry has operated for many, many decades.
When will you start launching those satellites?
We’re going to start building the capability to make them this year. Next year we’ll start flying the first prototypes. The following year, we’ll really start to productize and start providing space services to our customers. The satellite will fit inside of our rocket and be really beautifully designed to use every bit of space and mass available in the rocket.
You’re talking about doing 300 launches a year in 2025, which would be nearly three times the number of launches worldwide last year. How are you going to scale up operations to support that unprecedented pace?
We need to have a high level of automation, so at the foundation of our platform is software. We had at our first launch of 1.0 about 30 people in Kodiak. In our 2.0 launch, we had about 15 people. In our 3.0 launches, we got it down to five. We now can take the entire spaceport, as we demonstrated with the DARPA Launch Challenge, pack it up into four shipping containers, unpack it, and launch the rocket with five people.
We’re never going to go to a government spaceport. You’ll never see us build at Wallops or Cape Canaveral. We don’t want to be anywhere near those places. We want to deal with the FAA and they do a great job for us. I disagree with Elon [Musk] on this. I think that is a great group that’s been incredibly responsive. We want to have an environment where we can operate under their regulatory framework. It’s way easier than operating from the Cape or from Vandenberg.
Have you identified any spaceports you’ll go to next after Kodiak?
Yes, absolutely. We have engaged with several.
You mentioned you’re working on a 100-year plan for Astra. What does a 100-year plan for a rocket company look like?
If you look back at the Earth 50 years from now, or 100 years from now, there is a layer right above our atmosphere helping improve life on Earth. It’s an intelligent dust of connectivity that provides a level of capability here on the planet to better understand our resources, like really incredible, high-fidelity weather forecasting. Where are we hurting our coral reefs? What’s happening with methane?
I cannot believe 100 years from now, looking back at Earth, there isn’t this beautiful protective sphere. And you can call that Astra. So, we’re building that. How do you build that? Is that a monopoly? No, it’s a platform, and that platform will be driven by standards and competition and global collaboration. Astra is building that platform, but it’s going to take decades. This transaction gives us the resources we need to begin that journey.
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 15, 2021 issue of SpaceNews magazine.