Astra moves full steam ahead after successful orbital launch, looks to test Rocket 4.0 next year

Rocket startup-turned-public company Astra Space is flying high Monday morning, with stock prices increasing as much as 42% since markets opened thanks to the company’s first successful orbital flight late Saturday evening. But now the real work begins, as the company seeks to commence commercial operations and roll out new rocket versions for flight testing next year.

Rocket LV0007 (also called Rocket 3.3) launched from the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Kodiak, Alaska, and successfully delivered a payload for the U.S. Space Force as part of the department’s Space Test Program. It’s a huge boost for Astra, which now joins a very small club of private companies that have managed to reach orbit.

“This is really hard and all it takes is one thing to go wrong,” CEO Chris Kemp told reporters during a press conference Monday.

Astra’s taken an agile and iterative approach to testing, rapidly building out launch rockets (which have a serial number naming convention) and hosting test flights in relatively quick succession. As a result, the company’s experienced its share of failure — including the most recent flight test of LV0006, during which an engine anomaly caused the rocket to drift sideways before reaching around 50 km. But the persistence has paid off.

“A lot of these things are very difficult to test unless you’re in flight conditions,” Kemp explained. “We did this at record pace because of this iterative approach and I don’t think we would have gotten there on this schedule any other way.”

Leading up to the launch, the company got a lot of useful data not from flight simulations but from the natural environment: the sub-zero temperatures in Kodiak, Alaska, where Astra has a launch facility, Astra’s chief engineer Benjamin Lyon said Monday.

“We’ve never operated in these freezing temperatures before,” Kemp added.

The two executives confirmed that the next Rocket 3.3, LV0008, was close to launch readiness, though they said more details on flight dates and where it might take off from would be released at some point in the future. But because the launch of LV0007 went so smoothly, the company will likely not pour too much effort into any changes to further 3.3 versions, Kemp said. Instead, the company is turning its focus to Rocket 4.0, a new variant that should be able to carry heavier payloads than Rocket 3.3’s 50-kilogram payload capacity. The company will begin test flights of Rocket 4.0 next year.

Astra’s vision is to eventually conduct daily space launches using its small rocket system. Whether it will ultimately reach that target remains to be seen, but Kemp said launch demand has only increased over time.

“Since Astra went public […] almost a dozen companies that I would call space tech companies have gone public,” he said. “This gives them the resources to do more development or iterative design of spacecraft and satellites. I could only imagine that the demand will continue to grow, as we’ve seen over the past couple of years, so I think Astra really is in a position to deliver a payload to precise orbit on a precise schedule.”