After a few setbacks exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 situation, another small rocket launcher is readying to demonstrate their ability to launch a vehicle to space. Astra has just completed a second static test fire of its Rocket 3.1 orbital launch vehicle, and that means it’s now ready for a trip to Alaska, where it’ll hopefully make its first trip to orbit from a spaceport in Kodiak.
Astra originally started out as a company with the specific goal of answering the DARPA launch challenge, which asked companies to create a launch vehicle that could orbit within a few weeks of each other (originally from separate launch sites, but then later only from separate pads at the same spaceport). The challenge expired without Astra claiming the prize, after the 3.0 version of their Rocket failed to reach orbit.
The company has developed, tested and flown three successive generations of Rocket, mostly without much in the way of public fanfare or information sharing. The startup builds its small rockets, which measure roughly 40-feet tall, in Alameda, California at their own factory. In an interview with TechCrunch ahead of their DARPA challenge attempt, Astra CEO and founder Chris Kemp explained that their approach is focused on rapid, at-scale manufacturing and potential failure margins that might be higher than the existing launch companies tolerate.
A kind of mass-market delivery system approach definitely has advantages, and Astra has focused on a launch system that’s much more portable than others for deployment almost anywhere in the world. The company is also focused on small payloads, which it can deliver responsively, so a loss of such a spacecraft wouldn’t be nearly as expensive as, say, a rocket failing and losing a large geosynchronous GPS satellite.
Rocket 3.1 sounds like a relatively minor iteration on Rocket 3.0, versus the large full point updates of prior generations. Astra says it’s currently headed to Kodiak, and that the company is now working to finalize a launch window, with a date to be confirmed early next week for that next big test.