There’s yet another new rocket launch startup throwing its hat in the ring – Astra, an Alameda-based company that’s actually been operating in stealth mode (though relatively openly, often referred to as ‘Stealth Space Company’) for the past three years developing and testing its launch vehicle. Astra revealed its business model and progress to date in a new feature article with Bloomberg Businessweek, detailing how it plans to use mass production to deliver rockets quickly and cheaply for small satellite orbital delivery. Astra revealed its raised over $100 million from investors including Eric Schmidt’s Innovation Endeavors, Airbus Ventures, Canann Partners and Salesforce co-founder Marc Benioff, to name a few, and it has big ambitions in terms of cost and capabilities.
Astra’s rockets are smaller than most existing launch vehicles in operation, designed to delivery up to 450 lbs of cargo to space, but with the specific mandate of doing so quickly and responsively. The company is a finalist (and the only remaining one) on Darpa’s Launch Challenge, the terms of which mandate that the winning company deploy two rockets from two different payloads within a few weeks of each other. Astra is still in the running while its erstwhile competitors have dropped out, with Virgin Orbit having voluntarily withdrawn and Vector Launch having gone out of business.
The Darpa challenge, which includes an award of $12 million for the winner, represents a growing trend in terms of defense customer needs: Fast turnaround and responsive operations for small satellite delivery. In an industry where the process of securing a launch service provider, to actually flying a payload, has typically taken at least six months in the best case scenario, there’s a growing need for quicker timelines in the interest of building more redundancy and resilience into defense and reconnaissance space operations through use of networks of small satellites, vs. single large geostationary satellites that are expensive to launch and more time-consuming to task.
Astra, led by serial entrepreneur and former NASA CTO Chris Kemp wants to address this growing demand (which extends to commercial customers like Spire, Planet and others who are putting up large communications and Earth observation small satellite constellation) by producing rockets fast and with high frequency. Per the Bloomberg article, Astra says it can launch “profitably” for $2.5 million per mission, which is around half the going rate for a Rocket Lab launch, and that it eventually hopes to attain costs as low as $1 million per mission with a daily launch operational cadence. To that end, it’s looking to ramp production to a rate of producing hundreds of vehicles per year in a 250,000 square-foot manufacturing facility it’s setting up.
Astra is also different in that its using aluminum primarily in its launch vehicle, as opposed to the more costly but premium carbon fiber used by Rocket Lab in its Electron vehicle. And their launch platform is designed with mobility in mind, however, as the whole point is that it can be deployed responsively globally on short notice. If Rocket Lab’s launcher is a finely crafted and engineered supercar, Astra’s is aiming to be a reliable, adequate daily compact commuter car.
Next up for Astra in terms of key milestones is a launch planned for February 21 from Kodiak, Alaska – an island spaceport owned and operated by Alaska Aerospace. The company has actually already flown two suborbital test launches from this site, both in 2018, and both resulted in failures shortly following launch, so it’s got a lot to prove with this latest forthcoming attempt.