Planned failure of test launch is a success for space startup Astra

ALASKA—For the small Alameda-based space launch company Astra, the failure of its 1st orbital test launch was seen as a rousing success. 

At 7:19 p.m. local Alaska time, its two-stage Rocket 3.1 bellowed skyward from the Pacific Spaceport Complex. The rocket flew straight as an arrow for about 15 seconds before problems started to arise. 

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Issues with the rocket’s computerized guidance system allowed a slight roll oscillation. The rocket started to drift from its planned trajectory, forcing a command shutdown of its engines. 

After burning for 30 seconds, Rocket 3.1 made it through less than one-quarter of its planned first-stage burn. Astra officials released preliminary data blaming the issue on the flight software program, and not with the rocket’s first-stage hardware. 

Co-Founder and chief executive Chris Kemp praised the test flight saying: “This rocket is a completely new system, none of this has ever flown before…There’s almost not a single part on this rocket that has ever flown. This is a fantastic result.” 

This excitement over a test-launch failure fits in with Astra’s novel corporate belief: the best way to create a low-cost rocket quickly, tests need to be made in the air—not relegated to a computer simulation. 

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Since its founding in 2016, Astra has been able to keep its operating expenses to $100 million—a mere pittance compared to the exorbitant costs that are typically associated with space transportation. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s space company, Blue Origin, spent $205 million alone on a manufacturing facility. 

Astra is positioning itself as a cost-effective, budget-friendly alternative for launching small satellites into space. 

“What we’re trying to do is build a service that has a lower cost to operate, and a lower cost to provide the launch service.”

Chris Kemp, Astra CEO

Astra is already planning for its next launch, as Rocket 3.2 is currently being assembled at the company’s factory in Alameda, California. 

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The firing of Rocket 3.1 in the sky was also a symbolic launch: SpaceX and Blue Origin may need to make room for a third player in the space transportation industry. The private-sector space race has begun. 

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