Rocket launch startup Astra is readying for its first orbital flight test, set to take place either this weekend or next week, weather permitting. The company will launch its “Rocket 3.1” from Kodiak, Alaska — and while these are technically classified as orbital test flights, the company was quick to caution journalists on a press call on Thursday that it doesn’t necessarily believe each of the three initial launches it has planned will make it all the way to orbit proper.
“We don’t intend to get a hole-in-one here,” said CEO Chris Kemp. “It’s a par three course. We intend to really accomplish enough to ensure that we’re able to get to [orbital] flight after three flights, and for us, that means a nominal first-stage burn, and getting that upper stage to separate successfully. After that, pretty much everything that we learn is additional upside, and we’ll be just delighted if that upper stage lights and we’ll be delighted if the upper stage teaches us something so that our next flight can even be more successful.”
Astra’s approach to building and launching rockets differs somewhat from its competitors. The startup only incorporated three years ago, and it’s building its rockets in Alameda, California — not far from Oakland. The Rocket 3.1 is a roughly 40-foot launch vehicle that carries a small payload, roughly equivalent to one of the small sats that make up the large constellations currently being launched for operation in low Earth orbit by a number of companies (for reference, SpaceX launches 60 of these on each of its Starlink missions).
When I spoke to Kemp ahead of their original attempt to win a DARPA launch challenge (since ended with the prize unclaimed), he stressed that they’re looking to build in volume at low cost, with the expectation of a higher tolerable margin for failure than other new space launch companies like SpaceX and Rocket Lab.
“Rather than trying to spend many years doing it the first time, we’re iterating towards orbit,” Kemp said during Thursday’s conference about their debut attempt next week.
This is a do-over after the original planned attempt, which suffered an anomaly that led to a total loss of the vehicle. That was a Rocket 3.0 model, and the company has upgraded the design and worked out a number of issues, including the one that led to that failure, with the ensuing time. The gap between now and that attempt at the end of March includes delays resulting from COVID-19, though Astra was eventually declared one of very few companies still allowed to maintain a staffed office because it’s considered important to national security.
These three initial test flights won’t carry any payload, in part because Astra fully expects to lose at least the first vehicle. But Astra’s model actually allows for some operational failures in exchange for economics that allow much less expensive individual launch costs than are currently possible with either SpaceX or Rocket Lab’s rideshare missions as options for small satellite operators.
The first Astra test launch is currently targeting sometime between a window that spans August 2 to August 7, between the hours of 7 PM and 9 PM PDT (6 and 8 PM local time in Kodiak). So far, weather isn’t looking great for Sunday, but the company notes the weather shifts quickly and plans to keep a close watch and adapt accordingly.