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ADVERSITY

We are about to learn how long a rocket maker survives without a rocket

John Kraus/Astra
Astra's rocket on the pad ahead of a 2020 test.
  • Tim Fernholz
By Tim Fernholz

Senior reporter

Published Last updated on

In the space transportation business, the first launch is all-important—and hard to do. SpaceX nearly went bankrupt pushing through the three failed launches of its first rocket, the Falcon 1. Rocket Lab and Virgin Orbit both saw their first flight tests go south before proving they could put satellites on orbit.

Over the weekend, Astra Space saw the sixth rocket it has attempted to launch since 2018 fail to reach orbit. Saturday’s failure will test the patience of the company’s engineers, who were convinced that this time, the vehicle would perform as expected. It will test investors too. Last month, Astra became the first dedicated satellite launch company to trade on American stock markets after it merged with a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC).

What happened in Astra’s failed August launch

This time, Astra was attempting to launch an experimental payload for the US Space Force at a military base in Alaska. Something went wrong immediately as the rocket ignited. According to Astra, one of its five engines failed, unbalancing the machine and sending it gliding away horizontally as automated controls struggled to keep on course.  The rocket reached an altitude of 50 km before flight controllers shut down the mission for safety purposes.

That’s about as impressive as failures get, showcasing the ability of the Astra rocket to control itself despite unexpected conditions. At the same time, Astra has promises to keep in the next year, including:

  • a plan for monthly launches by the end of 2021
  • a re-design of the rocket to carry 10 times as much payload to orbit
  • the development of its own launch site, and
  • plans to build its own spacecraft.

Investigating the cause of this failure and figuring out how to fix it will rob precious time from Astra’s team.

The company, has about $450 million of cash on its balance sheet thanks to investment garnered while going public, which should give it time to get its rocket functioning again. But it faces equally deep-pocketed competitors.

The business of launching small satellites is worth about $750 million a year and growing fast, according to industry analysts Northern Sky Research. In the US, industry leader SpaceX and small-rocket builders Rocket Lab and Virgin Orbit are flying satellites to orbit, while Firefly Space and Relativity Space promise to debut their own rockets soon. Rocket Lab just completed its own SPAC transaction, and Virgin Orbit looks to set to follow in the months ahead.

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