Conscious Choice cover

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Astra third launch attempt fails just before 1st stage engine cutoff

Astra launch, August 28, 2021

Capitalism in space: The third orbital launch attempt of the smallsat rocket company Astra failed about two and a half minutes into flight, just about twenty seconds before the the first stage engine cutoff and stage separation.

It appeared that the first stage engines shut down about twenty seconds early, and then the rocket began tumbling.

I have embedded the live stream below the fold, cued to just before launch. The image to the right is a screen capture about seven seconds after liftoff. Astra’s rocket did a maneuver at launch I’ve never seen before, where it immediately tilted slightly to transition to the side, and then righted itself to begin gaining altitude. In this image the top of the strongback can be seen on the left, with the now upright rocket beginning its flight.

Whether Astra can figure out what went wrong and attempt another flight before the end of this year remains unclear. This was the third launch in their announced three launch test program, with the goal of reaching orbit on the third launch (today’s). They did not meet that goal, though their second test launch in December came extremely close to orbit with no major technical failures.


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  • Skunk Bucket

    Dang, I was hoping they’d make it this time. You have to keep in mind, though, that this is a lot like rocket science. Perhaps, like with the Falcon 1, the fourth time will be the charm.

  • Captain Emeritus

    Captain Hal flew the heck out of that takeoff, with it’s lurch, and translation hover out of camera frame.
    Looked like it was just going to roll over and die.
    But then, it was stunning to see it climbing away, back under control.(sorta)
    Looks like a large box or panel dislodged from the engine bay after max-q and when it departed, that was that, and finally the terminate signal was received.
    Whoever kept their thumb off the red destruct button gets my kudos, and lots of interesting data for the company to review.
    Beautiful place to launch.

  • Ray Van Dune

    What I can’t understand is how the auto-abort system thought all five engines were developing full power, released, and then suddenly they weren’t, as evidenced by the fact that the rocket hardly rose a meter, just slid sideways until it used up enough fuel to begin climbing away!

  • Jay

    My jaw dropped when it started going sideways at launch. I wish them the best of British Luck with their next flight. They should take pride that they have come this far.

  • Ray Van Dune

    It is tempting to speculate that perhaps the previous aborted launch was the result of a correctly-functioning launch abort system, one that was subsequently “adjusted” to be less sensitive, resulting in the release of a rocket with underperforming engines! Stranger things have happened!

  • John

    40 km up and the first thing out of their mouths is that everyone is safe, and that they take great lengths to ensure the team’s safety. I get the sentiment but unless they had a hamster onboard, I wasn’t worried.

    The team does have to decide when max Q is though.

  • Gealon

    That was a very Kerbal launch. But it was nice to see the computer was able to react quickly and correctly enough to keep the rocket from toppling over. Hopefully the problem will be just one underperforming engine burning the wrong ratio of fuel to oxidizer and it just depleted the rocket’s supply while also developing reduced thrust. That did look like very orange exhaust after all, and the way it lost control and tumbled immediately seems indicative of the engines shutting down at different times from fuel starvation.

    Just a little speculation on my part.

  • Ray Van Dune

    UPI reported it “suffered an anomaly 2.5 minutes after launch”. Hardly. More like “It was finally destroyed 2.5 minutes after launch by the anomaly it suffered when the launch abort system mistakenly released it!”

  • The translation hover after lift-off was very cute, but what is it supposed to accomplish? Engineers don’t do things for no reason. Everything costs. My immediate thoughts were:

    1. Reduce stress on the launch infrastructure.

    2. Hey, if it blows up right after lift-off, maybe we can spare some equipment!

    3. ? ? Comments?

  • Questioner

    Mr. Zimmerman:

    I ask you to completely rewrite your article as it is incorrect in content. As others have already written here: The failure occurred not about 20 seconds before the end of the propulsion phase of the first stage, but practically as soon as the rocket took off. The thrust of the engines was far too low so that the rocket barely could lift off. Perhaps one of the five engines had failed, which is why the rocket skidded for a brief moment. Although the rocket was able to stabilize itself again, its fate was already sealed, as it needed a lot more propellant than normal due to the low thrust (very high gravitational losses) to reach a certain speed. The mission had failed. They just waited until the rocket was far enough from the launch site before the flight was terminated. The cause was there at the beginning, not before the end of the propulsion phase of the first stage.

  • Questioner

    A comment, which cites the cause, I just found in the comment section of the launch video (by Adam Hill):

    “CEO Kemp stated it was an engine failure less than one second after liftoff. That was probably the explosion. It translated sideways because there was no longer enough thrust to make it go up. Once enough propellant was burned off to get the thrust-to-weight above 1:1, it started ascending. I thought for sure they were going to activate FTS after it cleared the pad area. Guidance did an amazing job getting it as high as possible before terminating.”

  • Captain Emeritus observed: “Captain Hal flew the heck out of that takeoff, . . ”

    D’accord. Not so long ago, that would have been a straight failure back in to the launch pad. A little insight into the software protocols.

  • Questioner

    Here the launch in a shorter video.

  • Jeff Wright

    The TEL had one of those ugly crys…and the rocket backed away: “Yeah, I think I’ ll just launch over here….

  • John hare

    Illustrates a difference in expendable vs reusable vehicles. A reusable possibly could have landed after understanding the issue. Any problems could have been investigated with the hardware in hand instead of telemetry.

  • John hare

    Question related to my last. Could a Falcon9 land with second stage and payload after a similar failure??

  • wayne

    The Black Arrow & Britain’s Rocket Program
    Scott Manley

    Interestingly, “In 2018, Skyrora recovered the first stages of Black Arrow-R2 and R3 from its landing site in the South Australian outback. The artifact is now on public display at the Farnborough Air Sciences Trust (FAST) Museum.”

  • Questioner

    This launch failure is reminiscent of a similar launch failure during the development phase of the German V2 rocket (A4), as shown in the linked video below at approximately 1:04 min. By the way, the Astra rocket roughly corresponds to the V2 rocket in terms of launch mass and height. The latter had significantly more thrust and thus a higher initial acceleration.

    To John Hare:

    To answer your question: I think, in principle, yes. However, it is very likely that this case is not currently shown in the flight software of the Falcon 9.

  • wayne

    Very nice clip.

    You might like this–
    (11 minutes, B&W, silent, but subtitled. Originally assembled by the Ordnance Department of the U.S. Army)

    “Captured German V-2 Rocket Film”

  • Jeff Wright: you have to finish the verse:

    “The TEL had one of those ugly crys…and the rocket backed away:
    “Yeah, I think I’ ll just launch over here….
    Fly a little while, and call it a day.

    Or, whatever you like.

  • pzatchok

    Am I the only one that thinks the wash down before ignition was a bit excessive or at least a little misdirected.
    What could all that water pretty much blowing into up into the engines do?

  • Jay

    John hare. that is an interesting question. I thought about it and I think the recovery of the first stage is designed for the first stage only. That second stage is carrying a payload and fuel, it is quite a mass. Even if they were able to dump the fuel from the second stage, I could see that first stage wobbling from being so top heavy and the whole thing spinning end over end.
    Good question though.

  • Questioner

    To John and Jay:

    I must correct myself. A Falcon 9 that was almost fully fueled after lift-off could not land again immediately for several reasons. Even if the flight software of the Falcon 9 would had been adapted to this case,. On the one hand, the legs, which are designed for an almost empty first stage (maybe 30 tons with fuel residues), of course, cannot carry a rocket that still weighs 400-500 tons. On the other hand, because of the high weight, practically all 9 engines would have to continue running for landing and would damage or destroy the rocket stage by the force of the gas jet of the nine engines, thrown back from the ground.

  • Max

    As others have commented, the exhaust smoke is the wrong color.
    Mixture is wrong or parts failed mechanically. What little you see the engine flame at start up is not symmetrical.
    As the craft starts to tilt, the far right engine relighted and debris is thrown through the air “going frame by frame” to the right of the craft before leaving the concrete pad. (it’s a good thing they left the chain-link fence open… It cut quite a pathway through the mud before gaining altitude approximately 50 feet? from the launchpad making a capital letter F on the ground.)
    A lot of mud covering the launch site and some angler material (debris?) On the ground. (When I take a screenshot and magnify the picture)

    The compartment shroud? That is visible from the onboard camera (also covered in mud streaks) that is seen whipping back-and-forth before coming free a few seconds before abort/separation was to take place, speaks for itself that something went wrong on start up and override failed.
    (Also, mud and rock dislodged by the motors thrust, flung back into the engine compartment saturating the undercarriage with sticky mud, on its way to orbit, and damage caused by the rocky buckshot to the underside of rocket…)
    After max Q the flame of the motor was changing color again, I think the suspicion that the craft ran out of fuel is correct.
    I have to wonder if there was enough reserve fuel in the second stage to boost the rest of the way to orbit… it was so close to separation.

  • Max

    Sound reasoning.
    Their best bet is a water landing.
    Elon says each stage can be landed independently, after they burn up their fuel, I don’t think the question was asked if it could land with a payload still attached.

    Even the starship doesn’t need escape pod because the entire craft is designed as one. It can thrust it’s self to a safe location, if empty can land upright. (We will soon see) it’s a work in progress, they make modifications on the fly… They don’t even know how much weight is added by the tiles and glue yet.

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