Observers in Kodiak, Alaska, were treated with pyrotechnics on Friday eveningAstra Space Inc. first attempted to reach orbit with its 38 foot high rocket.
The Astra vehicle took off from Pacific Spaceport Complex at 7:19 p.m. local time and flew for approximately 30 seconds before deviating from course – at which point the engines were remotely turned off. Gravity did its thing next when the missile fell back to the ground and exploded in a wooded area.
Astra from Alameda, California is one of many Beginnings around the world are trying to make small, cheap rockets that can put satellites into orbit almost every day.
The current leader in this market is the New Zealand born Rocket Lab, which charges about $ 7.5 million per flight and is the only company to have successfully operated commercial flights to date. The big bet Astra placed is that it can undercut Rocket Lab and others by building a simplified rocket that costs around $ 1 million per flight, although there is still a lot of work left to do to prove that thesis to prove.
For most of this year, Astra has been attempting a launch and is putting its hardware to the test. A variety of issues, ranging from hardware issues to bad weather to a pandemic, thwarted previous offerings.
On Friday, Astra’s engineers, which ran pizza and chicken sandwiches, were working late into the evening at both Kodiak and Mission Control in Alameda to do what the team likes to say, “Send It!”
Chris Kemp, co-founder and CEO of Astra, found many positive results in flight as the launch systems worked as expected and the missile’s sensors and computer systems fed large amounts of data back to the company.
“Obviously it didn’t do everything we wanted, but it started and we got a lot of great data,” he said. “We learned things that we wouldn’t otherwise learn if we didn’t fly.”
Given the difficult nature of the task at hand, it is common for missiles to stall or explode on early attempts to reach orbit. Elon Musk’s SpaceX had the same growth troubles as the first three rocket launches had major problems before a fourth resulted in success.
After hearing about Astra’s start, Musk tweeted, “Sorry to hear that. I am sure you will find out. It took us four launches to reach orbit. Missiles are tough. “
Peter Beck, the founder and CEO of Rocket Lab, also spoke encouraging words. “The data in this game is so hard to come by that we’re giving the team congratulations on getting the actual flight data from today’s attempt!” he tweeted.
Adam London, Astra Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer, written down that the early data of the flight indicated a problem with the missile’s guidance and navigation software.
This would be a plus for Astra in the sense that the hardware works as planned and a relatively simple software update could be applied to the machine to fix the problem. When the missile deviated from course, a security officer turned off the engines to ensure the vehicle landed in a designated safety zone and the subsequent explosion consumed almost all of the fuel remaining in the machine.
“Our missile has no toxic propellants,” said London. “It’s a pretty environmentally friendly thing.”
Astra has already built another missile that can be tested and flown. Final preparations for the machine will be made over the next several months before it is shipped to Kodiak in hopes of being back on the market before the end of the year. It also has a third rocket that’s about halfway through. The company has long said it takes three attempts to reach orbit.
Virgin Orbit, one of Astra’s main competitors, also failed earlier this year and is now preparing for another attempt at launch. Firefly Aerospace, based in Cedar Park, Texas, has a much larger missile than the Astra or Virgin Orbit and plans to launch its first launch in late 2020 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Southern California.
Meanwhile, SpaceX continues to dominate the market for the largest class of rocket, which handles the majority of the annual launches, and as of this year it will fly humans into space in addition to satellites.