Astra completes SPAC merger, goes public

Capitalism in space: Astra yesterday finalized its merger with the investment company Holicity and became the first launch company with stock publicly traded.

Today (June 30), the Bay Area launch startup completed its previously announced merger with Holicity, a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) backed by Bill Gates and billionaire telecom pioneer Craig McCaw, among others. Astra will start trading on the Nasdaq Global Select Market Thursday (July 1), becoming the first launch company ever to do so — a milestone marked by Astra CEO Chris Kemp, who will ring Nasdaq’s opening bell in the morning.

The merger brings the company $500 million in cash.

Astra has not yet successfully completed an orbital launch, though it hopes to begin monthly launches before the end of the year. It has attempted two orbital test flights, with the second only failing to reach orbit because it ran out of fuel. It says it has contracts for 50 launches, and will ramp up to weekly launches next year.

Astra is one of five rocket companies that have announced they will do their first orbital flight in 2021. So far, none have done so.

Astra buys space tug company that builds electric engines

Capitalism in space: The smallsat rocket company Astra announced today that it has brought Apollo Fusion, a space tug company that builds electric engines designed to move satellites from orbit to orbit.

Astra is purchasing Apollo Fusion for $30 million in stock and $20 million in cash in a deal announced June 7. The deal includes an additional $95 million in earn-out incentives if Apollo Fusion reaches certain technical and revenue milestones. Astra will incorporate Apollo Fusion’s Apollo Constellation Engine electric propulsion systems in satellite buses the company is developing to provide an integrated solution to customers.

Astra however has still not completed its first orbital flight. Its last test launch, in December 2020, almost reached orbit but did not. Company officials are now saying the next launch will be this summer, followed by monthly launches in the fall.

Astra wins three-launch contract from NASA

Capitalism in space: Astra, which as yet not achieved its first orbital launch, has won a three-launch contract from NASA valued at just under $8 million.

Astra, the Alameda-based space launch startup that recently announced its intent to go public via a SPAC merger, has secured a contract to deliver six cube satellites to space on behalf of NASA. Astra stands to be paid $7.95 million by the agency for fulfilment of the contract. This will be a key test of Astra’s responsive rocket capabilities, with a planned three-launch mission profile spanning up to four months, currently targeting sometime between January 8 and July 31 of 2022.

There is no word on when the first flight of its rocket, dubbed Rocket, will occur. The company has completed two test launches, with the second nearly making orbit.

Smallsat rocket company Astra to go public

Capitalism in space: A merger with a major investment capital company, bringing in $500 million, will result in the smallsat rocket company Astra going public.

Small launch vehicle developer Astra will go public by merging with a special-purpose acquisition company (SPAC), providing the company with nearly $500 million in cash and valuing it at more than $2 billion.

Astra announced Feb. 2 an agreement to merge with Holicity, a SPAC established last year by Craig McCaw. That merger, expected to close in the second quarter, will turn Astra into a publicly traded company on the Nasdaq exchange with the ticker symbol ASTR. McCaw, chairman and chief executive of Holicity, will join Astra’s board as part of the deal.

Astra expects to raise $489 million through the merger with Holicity, a total that includes a $200 million private investment in public equity (PIPE) led by BlackRock and $30 million from a concurrent Series C round, company executives said in an investor call. The deal will value Astra at $2.1 billion.

In the article Astra’s head claimed the company already has contracts for its first fifty flights, but did not provide any details. At this moment Astra has yet to complete a successful orbital launch, and has two attempted orbital tests which both failed.

Astra test launch almost reaches orbit

The view from space on Astra's Rocket

UPDATE: The rocket came up slightly short of orbit. From Eric Berger:

Rocket was 0.5 km/s short of orbit. With a better fuel mixture in the upper stage it would have orbited. Apogee of 390km. Rocket 3.3 will carry a payload, and there will be no hardware or software changes.

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Capitalism in space: According to the company’s Twitter feed, the second launch attempt today by Astra of its rocket appears to have reached orbit.

The images to the right were taken by their rocket, which is unimaginatively dubbed Rocket 3.2. I hope they now give this vehicle a more striking name.

If they have succeeded, they will have joined Rocket Lab as one of only two private commercial smallsat startups to launch a rocket to orbit. Two Chinese pseudo-private companies, Galactic Energy and ExSpace, have accomplished this, but I do not count them as real private companies. They might have worked independent of the government and raised investment capital, but nothing they do happens without close government supervision.

We will have to wait for full flight data from the company, but assuming they reached orbit that will be 40th American launch in 2020, the first time the U.S. has topped 40 launches in a single year since 1969, when the country achieved 46 successful orbital launches.

Astra sets December 7th for next test launch of its orbital rocket

Capitalism in space: The smallsat rocket company Astra is now targeting December 7th for its second of three test launches in its program to develop an orbital commercial rocket.

Astra plans to launch its two-stage, 38-foot-tall (12 meters) Rocket 3.2 from the Pacific Spaceport Complex on Alaska’s Kodiak Island between Dec. 7 and Dec. 18, representatives of the California startup announced last month. The window on each day runs from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. EST (1900 to 2200 GMT; 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. local time in Alaska).

The orbital attempt will be the second for Astra, which aims to claim a sizable chunk of the small-satellite launch market with its line of flexible, cost-effective rockets. The first test flight, in September of this year, ended with a bang about 30 seconds after liftoff. Astra’s Rocket 3.1 experienced an apparent guidance issue, prompting controllers to terminate the flight for safety reasons.

They determined the failure was a software issue that they appear to have now fixed.

The company has made it clear that has always expected that it will take three launches to reach orbit, so a failure on this launch would not surprise them. They do seem very confident however that they will succeed this time.

Next Virgin Orbit LauncherOne test flight set for late December

Capitalism in space: According to Coast Guard notices, the next Virgin Orbit attempt to put its new LauncherOne rocket into orbit should occur sometime between December 18-21.

A Nov. 24 “Local Notice to Mariners” by the U.S. Coast Guard stated that Virgin Orbit “will conduct hazardous operations” offshore from San Nicolas Island, California, between Dec. 18 and 21. Those operations will take place during a four-hour window that opens at 1 p.m. Eastern.

The notice does not explicitly state that a launch will take place, but Virgin Orbit used the same language in a Coast Guard notice for its first orbital launch attempt in May. That earlier notice, which also cited “hazardous operations,” had the same four-hour window and location for the operations.

The company has not officially announced the launch date, but it has said it would fly this mission before the end of this year.

The article also notes that another smallsat launch startup, Astra, has announced its next launch attempt will take place during a 12-day launch window starting December 7th.

Astra’s first orbital launch test fails

Capitalism in space: The first orbital launch test of the smallsat rocket company Astra failed last night shortly have liftoff.

In a more detailed update published on Astra’s website several hours after the launch, officials wrote that the rocket’s guidance system “appears to have introduced some slight oscillation into the flight, causing the vehicle to drift from its planned trajectory leading to a commanded shutdown of the engines by the flight safety system.”

“We didn’t meet all of our objectives, but we did gain valuable experience, plus even more valuable flight data,” Astra said. “This launch sets us well on our way to reaching orbit within two additional flights, so we’re happy with the result.”

This failure was not unexpected. The company has made it clear that it was the first of a three flight program aimed at reaching orbit with the third launch.

Astra scrubs launch attempt

Capitalism in space: The smallsat rocket company Astra yesterday scrubbed another attempt to achieve its first orbital launch.

They were forced to stand down at T-25 minutes because of a sensor issue. No further details were released, nor have they as yet announced a new launch date.

This launch will be the third for Astra, following two flights from the Pacific Spaceport Complex Alaska in July and November 2018, respectively. These flights were originally believed to be failures. However, Astra stated that the first (designated Rocket 1.0) was successful and that the second (Rocket 2.0) was “shorter than planned.” Neither rocket was designed to reach orbit, as they did not have functioning upper stages.

This scrubbed flight has been dubbed Rocket 3.0, and was part of what the company calls a three launch program aimed at reaching orbit by the third launch. All three launches are orbital, but the company has made it clear that it would not be surprised if the first or even the second failed.

Five American launches in two days!

Capitalism in space: Though the first launches in the string of four American launches that was initially scheduled to begin two days ago and continue through the weekend was delayed because of weather and then technical issues, all these delays have done is pack those scheduled launches into a shorter time period, with the addition of a fifth launch!

If all goes as scheduled (hardly guaranteed), we will see five launches from three spaceports and four private companies in less than two days. The schedule, as of this moment:

August 29th at 2:04 am (Eastern): ULA’s Delta 4 Heavy to launch a military reconnaissance satellite from Cape Canaveral. The company’s webcast of the launch can be seen here.

August 29th at 11:05 pm (Eastern): Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket will launch a commercial radar satellite from New Zealand. The launch can be watched at the company’s live stream channel.

August 30th at 10:08 am (Eastern): SpaceX’s Falcon 9 will launch more of its Starlink satellites from Cape Canaveral. All SpaceX launches are live streamed from SpaceX’s website, though the links are not yet up.

August 30th at 7:19 pm (Eastern): SpaceX’s Falcon 9 will launch an Argentinian Earth observation satellite from Cape Canaveral. All SpaceX launches are live streamed from SpaceX’s website, though the links are not yet up.

August 30th at 10:00 pm (Eastern): Astra will attempt the first orbital test launch of its privately built rocket from Kodiak, Alaska. They will not be live streaming their launch, but will provide updates at their Twitter feed.

All times and dates list only the beginning of the launch windows, which means they might launch, but not exactly at the times listed.

Also, SpaceX is aiming to do its second Starship test hop this weekend, the first for its sixth prototype.

The four companies (one a Chinese government operation) aiming for first orbital launch in 2020

Link here. The three private companies are Astra, Firefly, and Virgin Orbit. The fake Chinese private company is Expace.

Of the four, only Firefly has not yet attempted to launch, and in many ways remains the dark horse in this competition, coming out of bankruptcy to become reborn with a new investor. All three of the American private companies however have made it clear they intend to launch before the end of the year. The Chinese company’s plans are unknown (not surprisingly). Astra will be first, with its next launch attempt set for later this month.

Astra ships next rocket to Alaska for launch

Capitalism in space: The smallsat startup Astra has shipped its next test rocket to Kodiak, Alaska, for its planned six-day launch window, beginning on August 2nd.

The new two-stage launch vehicle, which the company calls Rocket 3.1, will take off from the Pacific Spaceport Complex on Kodiak Island. While the liquid-fueled rocket is designed to reach orbit, Astra says it will consider the test flight a success even it doesn’t enter orbit. “Success for this flight means we accomplish enough to make orbit within three flights, which we have defined as at least achieving a nominal first stage burn,” Astra said in June.

Chris Kemp, Astra’s co-founder and CEO, said the company will not be providing a live video stream of the launch to the public, but will release video imagery of the flight after it occurs. “We do not yet employ production, marketing, or communications folks, so our ability to produce a public webcast is limited,” Kemp said in response to questions from Spaceflight Now. “We are focusing all resources on engineering so that we can reach orbit in the next couple of flights.”

The August 2nd launch date is about two weeks later than they had announced in mid-June, but such a delay is not unreasonable for such a rocket test program.

They had attempted to launch an earlier rocket in March, only to have something go wrong during countdown.

Astra schedules next launch attempt

Capitalism in space: The smallsat rocket company Astra has scheduled its next launch attempt for July 20.

The company tried twice to launch in March, with the second attempt destroying the rocket and launchpad. They have now rebuilt, though they also admit that this first launch might also fail, and that it is part of a three launch program. By the third launch they expect to reach orbit for sure.

If Astra succeeds, they will leap ahead of Virgin Orbit as the second smallsat rocket company, following Rocket Lab, to become operational.

Astra furloughs and lays off a fifth of its workforce

The smallsat rocket company Astra Space recently reduced its workforce from 150 to 120, with most of those let go furloughed for three months during the Wuhan flu panic with some laid off entirely.

This reduction appears due mostly because of the panic, as it has killed their efforts to raise more investment capital. However, the “anomaly” that caused the complete loss of a rocket during countdown a few weeks ago might also have contributed. According to this article, which gives some more details of that “anomaly,” which apparently was a fire that destroyed the rocket, caused by “an unfortunate mistake.”

Astra Space suffers failure during launch dress rehearsal

Capitalsm in space: Astra Space, attempting again to complete its first orbital launch, suffered what they call “an anomaly” during a launch dress rehearsal countdown yesterday.

The “anomaly,” of which we presently have no description other than it has cancelled their launch attempt later this week and that no one was hurt, apparently was serious enough that they noted that the launch site is “still hazardous and should be avoided.”

The company has said that it expected it would take three launches before they succeeded in getting into orbit, so this failure probably does not worry them overally. At the same time, I suspect that expectation was for actual launches, not explosions during the countdown.

Astra to try its first orbital launch again this week

Capitalsm in space: After aborting its first orbital launch attempt at T-53 seconds, Astra has announced that it will to try its first orbital launch again this week.

They have not revealed the payload. They also admit that they will not be surprised if they fail to reach orbit, as they already assume it will take about three launches to iron out their rocket and systems.

Regardless, if they succeed, they will become the second company, after Rocket Lab, to successfully enter the smallsat market.

No word on whether they will live-stream the launch.

Astra scrubs first orbital launch

Capitalism in space: Astra, competing for DARPA launch challenge, is about to attempt the first orbital launch of its Rocket 3.0. Live stream of launch embedded below.

The rocket is carrying three cubesats. DARPA’s goal is for the development of a rocket system that can very quickly go to launch. In this case Astra only found out what its payloads were about a month before launch, and had to proceed to launch in mere weeks. They will win $2 million. They can get another $10 million if they launch again by the end of March.

The launch went into an unplanned hold 53 seconds before launch. Their launch window extends to 6:30 pm (Eastern), so there is still a chance they can lift-off today.

They have now scrubbed the launch. No word yet on when they will reschedule. Their failure to launch today however means they will not win the $2 million launch challenge. It was unclear from the broadcast if they would win the $10 million if they manage two launches by the end of March. (According to this website, that award is also lost.) It was even unclear whether they would even try to launch their three cubesat payloads.

In fact, as I watched the post-scrub interviews, I began to get suspicious about this whole event. Astra has been very secretive about its work. They have never successfully launched before. Could this merely have been a demonstration that they could get a rocket set up on an empty concrete pad, with payload, in only a matter of weeks, knowing that the launch was simply impossible? I have no idea, but I do wonder.

My suspicions do not mean Astra won’t launch eventually. I just now have doubts they ever were ready today.