Astra plans to get to Earth orbit for the first time this summer — and to return many times in the ensuing weeks, months and years.
The Bay Area small-launch startup reached space for the first time last December, on a test flight with its 38-foot-tall (12 meters) Rocket 3.2 vehicle from the Pacific Spaceport Complex on Alaska’s Kodiak Island.
Rocket 3.2 didn’t quite reach orbit, running out of fuel just seconds before achieving the required velocity. But Astra made some tweaks to its next booster, Rocket 3.3, and plans to launch the new vehicle on a fully operational, satellite-carrying orbital mission sometime this summer.
And that launch will kick off a sustained and accelerating march to the final frontier for Astra, if all goes according to plan.
“In the fall, we’ll start this monthly cadence, and then we’re going to continue that cadence as we start to ramp towards weekly [orbital launches] late next year, ” Astra CEO Chris Kemp, who co-founded the company in 2016, told Space.com.
“Then we’ll cross through weekly,” Kemp said, and target “daily space delivery, or roughly 300 launches, in 2025.”
Small rockets, big plans
The small-satellite launch market is growing fast, and Astra intends to grab a sizable chunk of it. The startup’s strategy centers on providing cheap, flexible and dedicated rides to orbit with simplified, mass-produced rockets small enough to be transported to the launch site in a standard shipping container.
Astra’s two-stage launchers will also be ever-evolving, with a new and improved versiondebuting roughly every year, Kemp said. Some of the envisioned improvements are substantial, and will require far more than the mere tweaks the company performed to upgrade Rocket 3.3’s fuel-management software.
For example, the current Rocket 3 line features five “Delphin” first-stage engines and one “Aether” engine in its upper stage, all of which were developed and built in-house. But Rocket 4, the vehicle that Astra intends to use when it begins weekly launches in 2022, will be powered by just a single first-stage engine — a brand-new engine much more powerful than the Delphin.
That change alone will allow Astra to launch several hundred kilograms to low Earth orbit, Kemp said — a significant boost from Rocket 3’s payload capacity, which is about 110 lbs. (50 kilograms). And upgrades to the upper-stage engine, along with some mass-optimization work, should enable Astra to launch satellites that weigh up to 1,100 lbs. (500 kg) in the near future, Kemp added.
That higher payload capacity will allow Astra to compete for many more launch contracts — for example, from companies building huge broadband constellations, such as OneWeb and Amazon. (SpaceX is assembling such a constellation, too, but is launching its Starlink internet satellites on its own Falcon 9 rockets.)
“As we build the next couple versions of the rocket, we’re targeting 500 kilograms so that we can address the entire megaconstellation market,” Kemp said.
Astra already holds contracts for more than 50 launches, which represent more than $150 million in revenue, Kemp said. Some of the company’s customers are pretty high-profile. For example, in May of this year, Astra announced that it had signed a deal with San Francisco-based Planet, which operates the world’s largest constellation of Earth-observing satellites. Astra will launch Planet spacecraft next year; the number of missions and the financial details were not disclosed in that announcement.
And this past February, Astra won a $7.95 million contract to launch NASA’s Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation Structure and Storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats (TROPICS) mission. TROPICS will study the formation and evolution of hurricanes using six cubesats, which Astra will launch over three missions between January and July 2022, NASA officials have said.
Related: The history of rockets
New launch sites — and building spacecraft, too
Astra has conducted four launches to date: suborbital test flights in July 2018 and November 2018, and orbital attempts in September 2020 and December 2020. (The September 2020 try, with the Rocket 3.1 vehicle, failed to reach space after suffering an issue with its guidance system.)
All four have originated from the Pacific Spaceport Complex — but that should change soon.
“There will be another launch from a different launch site this year,” Kemp said. “And what I’m excited about is, from deciding to launch the launch site to announcing it to doing the launch will be Astra-fast.”
TROPICS will bring some geographic diversity as well. Those three missions will launch from the Marshall Islands’ Kwajalein Atoll, in the central Pacific. Kwajalein has hosted a lot of spaceflight action over the decades, from U.S. military missile tests to SpaceX’s first orbital launch attempts to flights with Northop Grumman’s air-launched Pegasus rocket.
And Astra isn’t content with just building and launching rockets. Like one of its chief competitors in the small-launch market, Rocket Lab, Astra is also developing its own satellite bus, to give customers the option to integrate their payloads into a spacecraft they don’t have to build themselves.
Astra’s spacecraft will be powered by electric-propulsion engines built by Apollo Fusion, which the company recently acquired. These super-efficient engines will allow Astra to deliver payloads to a variety of destinations beyond low Earth orbit, including the moon and Mars, Kemp said, though he stressed that the company’s focus will likely remain on Earth orbit for a while.
Achieving such ambitious goals will take a fair amount of cash, and Astra has just come into some. Last week, the company completed a merger with Holicity, a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) that’s backed by such deep-pocketed folks as Bill Gates and billionaire telecom pioneer Craig McCaw.
The transaction took Astra public, and on Thursday (July 1) it became the first launch company ever to trade on the Nasdaq Global Select Market. Kemp rang the Nasdaq opening bell that morning to mark the occasion. (Rocket Lab plans to go public soon as well, via its own SPAC merger.)
The merger, which valued Astra at $2.1 billion and is expected to provide the company with about $500 million in cash proceeds, “gives us a fully funded path to daily space delivery,” Kemp said. “We didn’t have that before.”
Mike Wall is the author of “Out There” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.