Astra’s last rocket failure pinpointed to upper stage engine

Astra has determined that the launch failure in June 2022 was because the upper stage engine of its Rocket 3.3 rocket was burning fuel faster than it was supposed to.

“We’ve determined that the upper stage shut down early due to a higher-than-normal fuel consumption rate,” the update reads. “We have narrowed the root cause to an issue with the upper stage engine. We have also completed many rounds of ground testing, including multiple tests that yielded results consistent with the failure condition in flight.”

When the failure happened, the company had quickly determined that the upper stage had shut down prematurely. The investigation has now determined that it had simply run out of fuel, because of that higher-than-intended burn rate.

While they say they will next institute corrective measures, that seems unlikely for this engine. In August Astra announced it would no longer launch Rocket 3.3, and was instead shifting to the development of a newer bigger rocket, Rocket-4. It now appears that decision was made based on the results of this investigation. The engine probably has fundamental issues that could not be resolved easily.

This decision to cease use of Rocket 3.3 essentially removed Astra as an operational rocket company. Whether the company can re-enter the launch market with a new rocket however remains very unclear.

September 2, 2022 Quick space links

Courtesy of BtB’s stringer Jay.

The tweet however provides no date for the test, nor any information about this particular engine itself.

This is preliminary design work involving Earth-based tests. A later phase, not yet awarded, will move on to orbital tests.

Most of this new private capital apparently came from Saudi Arabia and Greece, and the constellation will start out focused on serving those regions as well as Luxembourg.

Astra gets contract to provide engines to OneWeb satellites

Capitalism in space: Astra, the startup rocket company that recently announced a cessation in launches, has won a contract to provide engines used by OneWeb satellites to maneuver in orbit.

he Astra Spacecraft Engine was designed by Apollo Fusion, which Astra acquired last year. It is an electric Hall engine and has been used by York Space Systems, Spaceflight’s Orbital Transfer Vehicle (OTV) Sherpa-LTE, and a U.S. Air Force intelligence satellite. Astra signed a deal earlier this year to supply the engines to LeoStella.

In retrospect, the purchase by Astra of Apollo last year was a signal that the company might be shifting its gears away from rocketry, at least in the short term. This contract, along with the others won by Apollo before Astra bought it, provides Astra a survival profit stream even as it has leaves the rocket launch market while attempting to develop its proposed larger Rocket-4. Whether it can resume launches eventually remains somewhat doubtful, as a number of new rocket companies should become operational in the interim, making that smallsat launch market very crowded.

Astra cancels all launches with its Rocket 3.3 rocket

Capitalism in space: Astra yesterday announced that it has canceled all further launches with its Rocket-3.3 rocket, and will instead focus on developing a larger version, dubbed Rocket-4, which it says will begin test flights in 2023.

The company says that it will no longer fly the Rocket 3.3 and move on to its larger Rocket 4 vehicle that it announced in May. One change is that the payload performance of the new rocket has doubled to 600 kilograms. Kemp didn’t disclose details of the design change other than an upgrade to its upper stage engine. Rocket 3.3, by contrast, had a payload capacity of no more than 50 kilograms.

“The feedback that we were getting from some of the larger constellation operators was that satellites were getting larger,” he said. Discontinuing the existing Rocket 3.3, he said, allowed the company to focus its resources on the new launch system, including increasing its payload capacity.

Essentially, Astra has left the field and is at present no longer an operational smallsat rocket company. It is also likely that its announced schedule for its upgraded rocket will not be met. Thus, expect customers to shift to other launch providers able to launch satellites, such as Rocket Lab and Virgin Orbit.

Not surprisingly, the company’s stock plunged soon after this announcement.

Astra launch a failure when upper stage shuts down prematurely

Capitalism in space: A launch attempt today by Astra of two NASA weather cubesats, designed to study the evolution of storms in the tropics, was a failure when the upper stage engine shut down prematurely.

This was the second launch failure for Astra out of three launch attempts in 2022. Both this failure and the February 10th failure occurred after the first stage has successfully done its job. The first was due to the failure of the fairings to separate. Today the fairing ejected properly, but then the second stage engine failed.

The launch however did illustrate something quite profound. Though it occurred about one hour and forty-three minutes into its two hour launch window, the launch team was able to recycle the count three times due to various issues and still launch. What makes this significant is that such quick countdown recycles have now become very routine.

When SpaceX did its first quick countdown recycle back during its first Falcon-1 launches in the 2000s it was astonishing, as NASA would never do such a thing. If a NASA shuttle launch aborted close to launch, the agency would always stand down for at least a day to figure things out. Even today, its ability to do a quick countdown recycle with its SLS rocket is almost impossible, as shown during its first attempt to do a dress rehearsal countdown of SLS in April. With each abort the agency had to reschedule for the next day or even later. It had little ability to quickly turn things around.

Private enterprise has since proven that such slow operations are inefficient and unnecessary.

Meanwhile, Astra needs to fix this issue and launch again. It was able to investigate and fix the fairing issue that caused that February launch failure in just over a month. Hopefully it can do the same again.

Astra reveals vague details about its next larger rocket

Capitalism in space: In a public event in California yesterday Chris Kemp, CEO of the rocket startup Astra, revealed some vague details about the company’s new larger rocket, dubbed Rocket 4.0.

The vehicle will be able to place up to 300 kilograms into low Earth orbit and 200 kilograms into sun-synchronous orbit at a “base price” of $3.95 million. By contrast, Astra’s current Rocket 3.3 vehicle can accommodate a small fraction of that payload, having to date launched only a few cubesats at a time.

…The biggest change in the rocket is its first stage propulsion. While Rocket 3.3 uses five of Astra’s Delphin engines, generating a combined 35,000 pounds-force of thrust, Rocket 4.0 will use two larger engines that produce a combined 70,000 pounds-force of thrust.

Kemp’s presentation however did not reveal whether Astra is building it or whether the company is buying it from someone else. He did say the company does not plan to attempt ot reuse any portion of Rocket 4.0, saying that the economics did not work for Astra.

His presentation also suggested a first launch for late this year, using a mission control made up of only two people, what he called “a pilot and a co-pilot.”

Astra signs deal to launch from SaxaVord Spaceport in Shetland

Capitalism in space: Astra today announced an agreement with the SaxaVord Spaceport in the Shetland Islands to begin launches from that United Kingdom location, beginning in 2023.

These launches will be the first by Astra outside the U.S. It is the second American company to sign on with SaxaVord, with Lockheed Martin’s ABL rocket company smallsat startup planning its own first launch there later this year. SavaVord also has a launch deal with a French company, Venture Orbital Systems, which hopes to launch later this decade.

None of these however could be the first launch from the United Kingdom since the 1960s. Virgin Orbit has a deal to launch from a runway from a Cornwall airport later this year. Furthermore, the rocket company Orbex is planning to launch its Prime rocket from a differenct spaceport in Sutherland, Scotland.

OneWeb and Arianespace scramble to find a rocket to launch satellites

Capitalism in space: With the cancellation of the last six Soyuz-2 launches for OneWeb and Arianespace due to Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, the two companies are struggling to find an alternative rocket to launch the remaining 216 satellites that would complete OneWeb’s satellite constellation.

OneWeb has already paid Arianespace for the launches, so the responsibility to get the satellites in orbit is at present Arianespace’s. The problem is that its flight manifest for both the Ariane-5 (being retired) and the new Ariane-6 rocket are presently full.

Going to another rocket provider is problematic, even if a deal could be negotiated. The flight manifest for ULA’s Atlas-5 and Vulcan rockets is also filled. Though SpaceX’s Falcon 9 could probably launch the satellites, that company’s Starlink satellite constellation is in direct competition with OneWeb, which makes it unlikely the two companies could make a deal.

There have been negotiations with India to use its rockets, but it is unclear at present whether this will work.

One other option is to buy a lot of launches from the smallsat rockets of Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbiter, and Astra. This will likely cost more because more launches will be required, and that would required a complex negotiation between all parties.

Astra successfully completes its second orbital launch

Capitalism in space: After a February 10, 2022 launch failure, the rocket startup Astra today successfully completed its second orbital launch and first in 2022, putting its first commercial payloads into orbit.

Unfortunately the separation and deployment of a payload platform from the upper stage had not been confirmed as of this posting. While the payloads can still function attached to the upper stage (they are not fully functional satellites), if this deployment turns out to be a failure it will put a stain on the launch. Astra confirmed the successful deployment of the payloads about an hour after launch.

That the company could investigate a launch failure, fix the problem, and resume launches in just over a month however speaks well for its future. If the deployment failed fixing it should proceed as quickly. Meanwhile, the company announced yesterday a new multi-launch contract through 2025 with Spaceflight, which finds launches for smallsats and also provides a small tug to move them into their preferred orbit.launches.

The leaders in the 2022 launch race remain unchanged:

10 SpaceX
5 China
2 Russia

The U.S. now leads China 16 to 5 in the national rankings.

Astra completes investigation into February 10th launch failure

Capitalism in space: Astra today released the results of its investigation into its February 10th launch failure, confirming that the failure occurred because the improper separation of the fairings on the upper stage.

Through their analysis, Astra confirmed that the payload fairing on LV0008 failed to separate properly prior to upper stage engine ignition due to an electrical issue. The five separation mechanisms that are present in the Rocket 3 fairing were triggered in an incorrect order, resulting in unexpected fairing movement that caused a disconnection in the electrical wiring. This meant that one of the five separation mechanisms did not receive the command to open, thereby preventing the fairing from separating completely.

Upon further investigation, Astra narrowed the root cause of the fairing separation issue down to an error in the electrical harness engineering diagram for the separation mechanisms. The harness was built and installed as specified by the drawing and installation procedures, but an error in the drawing itself led to two of the five harness channels being inadvertently swapped.

In addition, the company identified a software problem “that left the upper stage engine, Aether, unable to utilize its thrust vector control (TVC) system – which allows the engine to gimbal and maneuver the vehicle.”

The company states that both issues have been corrected, and is now targeting March 13 for its next launch, taking place from Kodiak, Alaska, and only carrying a test dummy payload that will not be released from the upper stage. Thus, this test launch will be similar to the company’s only orbital launch on November 19, 2021.

Astra’s fast investigation, fix, and determination to launch again quickly speaks well of the company. Why however it doesn’t test its deployment system with a dummy satellite on this next test launch is somewhat puzzling, especially since it would be very easy to release that dummy into an orbit that quickly decays and burns up in the atmosphere.

Astra releases update on February 10th launch failure

Capitalism in space: Astra yesterday released an update on its investigation into its February 10th launch failure at Cape Canaveral.

The update doesn’t provide any conclusions, but merely notes that the company has completed its review of all “video and telemetry” from the event, and has reconstructed a full timeline from that data.

It is now reviewing that timeline to create what engineers call “fault trees”, each a specific scenario path pointing at a possible cause of the failure. Once that cause has been identified, engineers can then propose a solution.

According to the press release, the company is already “implementing corrective actions”, though the release provides no information as to what the cause was or what they are doing to correct. It states instead that once the investigation and corrections have been completely, the company will then release a full report.

Meanwhile, it appears that at least six law firms are considering suing the company, which became a publicly traded company in July 2021. These law firms “…are seeking clients who lost significant amount of money after purchasing the stock.” The launch failure caused the stock value to drop significantly, and these law firms apparently think that the company has made false claims about its plans — such as its claim that it will eventually be launch 300 times per year — and wish to put together a class action lawsuit based on this accusation plus the drop in stock price.

Whether Astra can meet its goal of 300 launches per year is certainly at this time questionable. However, it is too soon to call the company a failure. Once it recovers from the launch failure and resumes launches — a process that for any new rocket company generally takes a few years — that stock price will certainly recover, and will rise with each successful launch.

Only should Astra fail to resume launches, or continue to fail with each launch, will the stock truly crash, and thus provide these law firms with a possible case.

At the same time, in a free society we are supposed to recognize the concept of “buyer beware.” If you buy a product or a stock, it is at your own risk. If you fail to do due diligence beforehand, your loss is your responsibility, not the company who made the product or whose stock crashed.

It appears, based on everything Astra has so far done, an investment in its stocks while quite risky has not been an unreasonable gamble, making the present case for these lawsuits somewhat weak. Time will tell however whether that changes in the future.

Astra launch fails when upper stage starts tumbling after stage separation

Capitalism in space: Astra’s first attempt to launch from Cape Canaveral and put commercial cubesats in orbit failed today when the upper stage started to tumble immediately after the first stage had separated.

Embedded below is video showing that tumbling. The full replay of the launch live stream can be viewed here.

The silver lining of this failure is that the first stage and all launch operations appeared to function perfectly, right up until after stage separation. Nonetheless, it is a failure, and the company will need to try again and succeed if it wants to survive in the aggressive new launch market.
» Read more

Astra launch aborts at T-0

UPDATE: The launch has been scrubbed for the day. No word on when they will reschedule, nor has Astra released any information as to what caused the launch abort, other than a “telemetry issue.”.

Capitalism in space: The second attempt by Astra to launch its first commercial satellites on its second orbital launch from Cape Canaveral aborted at T-0.

The launch on February 5th was scrubbed when some radar equipment used by the range failed.

The launch team is presently reviewing the data to see if they can recycle and attempt another launch today. This would be the second recycle today, as the first launch attempt was held about a minute before launch and then recycled, leading to the launch abort at T-0. The launch window still has about 100 minutes left.

The rocket is carrying four cubesats, three built by students at three different universities, with the fourth built by engineers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in their effort to learn how to build cubesats for themselves.

I have embedded Astra’s live stream below the fold, for those who wish to watch.
» Read more

Astra’s 1st launch from Kennedy scheduled for Feb 5

Capitalism in space: Astra’s first satellite launch from Cape Canaveral has now been scheduled for Feb 5, 2022, when the startup will attempt to launch four cubesats for NASA.

This launch will also be Astra’s first operational launch, and the first to carry actual satellites on its Rocket-3.3 rocket. If successful it will join Rocket Lab and Virgin Orbit as the third operating commercial smallsat rocket company.

Astra completes 1st static fire dress rehearsal countdown of Rocket-3 at Kennedy

Capitalism in space: On January 22, 2022, Astra successfully completed at Cape Canaveral the first static fire dress rehearsal countdown of its Rocket-3 rocket.

“Successful static test completed. We will announce launch date and time when we receive our license from the FAA,” said Chris Kemp, founder and CEO of the Alamada, California-based company on Twitter. The company, which was formed in 2016, had been targeting this month for the launch.

The FAA apparently required this successful dress rehearsal before it would provide the launch license. Expect the launch to follow almost immediately after the permit is issued. If successful it will be Astra’s second orbital launch, and the first to carry actual satellites for customers, three cubesats from three different universities and one from NASA’S Johnson Space Center.

Wall Street financial firm condemns Astra as bad investment

Capitalism in space: In a blunt critique announcing its decision to short sell Astra stocks, the Wall Street financial firm Kerrisdale Capital condemned the startup rocket company as a poor investment.

Kerrisdale’s analysis focuses on two issues, Astra’s under-powered rocket and the company’s prediction that it will launch as many as 300 rockets a year by 2025.

Astra’s rocket launch projections are nonsense. No market analysis supports Astra’s planned 300+ launches by 2025. Excluding satellites from SpaceX and China from industry-wide forecasts, there is insufficient demand to support even a fraction of Astra’s aggressive forecast.

Large launch vehicles are a more efficient and cost-effective solution to deploying whole orbital planes versus piecemealing coverage through a series of small launches and will dominate the market for mega-constellations (which are widely expected to comprise the bulk of all satellites deployed over the next decade). Only scraps will remain for Astra and all the other smaller launchers—far less than Astra needs to turn a profit.

Astra is falling behind its competitors. Multiple industry executives we interviewed, who routinely secure launch services for small satellite manufacturers on a global basis, agree that Astra’s rocket dimensions and payload capacity are well below the “sweet spot” of customer needs.

The publication of this report caused an immediate 10% drop in Astra’s stock, though it then recovered somewhat.

The report has some validity, though it assumes that the market for rocket launches will remain the same as it has for decades, an assumption that is simply false. Things always change. What happened before is no guarantee it will happen that way in the future.

Moreover Astra’s strategy is to built a small rocket that is very very cheap. It hopes that low price will bring it cubesat customers who want a launch on schedule and sent to their chosen orbit, something they do not get when they are secondary payloads on larger rockets. There is a strong possibility that this strategy will work, based on the fast growth in the satellite industry in the past decade when SpaceX and Rocket Lab forced launch costs to drop from $100 to $500 million to $6 to $60 million.

Kerrisdale’s report however is a valid wake-up call, and suggests that Wall Street’s recent passion to pour money into many new startup rocket companies (estimated by some to exceed a hundred) might finally be easing.

Astra’s next launch to be in Florida

According to statements by Astra and the Space Force, the startup’s next launch, its first operational mission intended to place payloads in orbit, will occur in Florida at Cape Canaveral.

Astra announced that it will conduct a launch of its Rocket 3.3 vehicle from Space Launch Complex 46 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in January. The pad, originally developed for tests of the Trident submarine-launched ballistic missile, is now operated by Space Florida. It has been used for launches of Athena rockets and, in 2019, a test of the launch abort system for NASA’s Orion spacecraft.

..Astra said in the statement that it will carry a payload for NASA on that flight but did not disclose additional details. A company spokesperson said this launch will be for NASA’s Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS) program, under a VCLS Demo 2 contract the company won a year ago.

That launch, designated ELaNa 41 by NASA, will carry five cubesats, according to a NASA manifest. Four of the cubesats are from universities: BAMA-1 from the University of Alabama, CURIE and QubeSat from the University of California Berkeley and INCA from New Mexico State University. The fifth, R5-S1, is from NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

No specific date for the launch has as yet been announced.

Astra successfully completes first orbital launch

Screen capture 12 seconds after liftoff
Screen capture 12 seconds after liftoff.

Capitalism in space: Astra tonight successfully launched a dummy payload into low Earth orbit. This was their first success after four tries.

The company now joins Rocket Lab and Virgin Orbit as the three operational smallsat rocket launch providers.

The leaders in the 2021 launch race:

41 China
25 SpaceX
18 Russia
5 Europe (Arianespace)

China’s lead over the U.S. in the national rankings has now narrowed to 41 to 40. For the U.S. the 40 launches so far this year ties the entire total from all of last year. With about six weeks left in the year, the U.S. is likely to add a good number of launches to this total. If the total tops 50, it will be first time since the mid-1960s that the U.S. has done that.

The total number of successful launches this year is presently 107. There is an excellent chance the total will exceed 120, a number last seen routinely during the 1970s and 1980s. The highest total ever was 132 in 1975. There is a slim chance that can be beat this year, but if not, I would expect it will be easily eclipsed next year.

Watching Astra’s launch attempt tonight

Capitalism in space: Astra has made its live stream available for its orbital launch attempt tonight, scrubbed last night about ten minutes before liftoff.

This will be the company’s fourth attempt to launch a payload into orbit. The first three attempts failed in some manner.

I have embedded the company’s live stream, provided by NASASpaceflight LLC and Astra Space Inc., below the fold.
» Read more

Astra’s 4th attempt to reach orbit now scheduled for early November

Capitalism in space: The new smallsat rocket company Astra has revealed that it will make its fourth attempt to reach orbit with a launch window opening on November 5th.

That this launch could take place only a little over two months since Astra’s last attempt, which failed, speaks well of the company. They have very quickly fixed the fuel line issues that caused that August 28th failure and then moved immediately to fly again.

Moreover, the company’s overall pace of launch is excellent. This will be their fourth launch attempt since September 2020, less than fourteen months, suggesting that when they finally succeed and begin operational launches they will also keep their promise of frequent and rapid launches.

Astra schedules next launch attempt

Capitalism in space: The new smallsat rocket company Astra has completed its investigation of its launch failure on August 28th and scheduled its next launch attempt for no earlier than October 27th.

During liftoff, kerosene fuel and liquid oxygen both leaked from the propellant supply system adjacent to the rocket. This system is designed to quickly disconnect and seal when the rocket launches. When LV0006 lifted off, these leaked propellants mixed and became trapped beneath the interface between the rocket and the ground equipment.

These mixed propellants were subsequently ignited by the exhaust of the first stage engines, which caused an over-pressurization that severed the electrical connection which controls the fuel pump. This caused the shutdown of one Delphin on the first stage less than one second after liftoff.

The company has revised its system to prevent further leaks, and shifted the fuel lines so that even if there is a leak, the propellants can no longer mix.

Firefly selling its rocket engines to Astra

Capitalism in space: It now appears that Firefly’s effort to diversify its rocket business by selling its Reaver rocket engine to other companies has resulted in it selling that engines to its competitor Astra, for possible use either in that company’s smallsat rocket or in an new redesigned rocket not yet revealed.

Under the [$30 million] deal, which closed earlier this year, Firefly will send up to 50 of its Reaver rocket engines to Astra’s rocket factory in Alameda, California, where a development engine was already delivered in late spring for roughly half a million dollars, according to an internal Firefly document viewed by The Verge and a person briefed on the agreement. Astra engineers have been picking apart the engine for detailed inspection, said a person familiar with the terms, who, like others involved in the deal, declined to speak on the record because of a strict non-disclosure agreement.

Apparently, the contract includes clauses that forbid Astra from using the engine in circumstances that directly compete with Firefly’s Alpha rocket.

The article also suggests that the contract will allow Astra to manufacture the engine itself, thus keeping its operations in-house and not dependent on outside contractors.

The deal suggests two things. First, it shows the growing strength of Firefly. It is not only going to make money launching satellites, it will also do so selling engines to other companies. Second, the deal suggests Astra has issues with its own rocket engine, and needs something better quickly to survive.

Astra launch failure caused by one of five 1st stage engines shutting down at liftoff

Capitalism in space: According to an Astra press release, its launch failure on August 28th was caused when one of the rocket’s five 1st stage engines shut down one second after liftoff.

One of the five main engines shut down less than one second after liftoff, causing the vehicle to slowly lift off the pad before resuming its trajectory. After approximately two minutes and thirty seconds of flight, the range issued an all engine-shutdown command, ending the flight.

The lack of one engine explains the rocket’s strange take-off, where it initially tilted slightly, shifted sideways, and then straightened up and began rising upward. From that point onward the ground controllers knew the mission would not reach orbit, and were only waiting until it reached a safe altitude to cut off the engines and have the rocket fall into the ocean safely.

While the launch failed, Astra’s engineers should be very satisfied by how the software on the rocket functioned. Rather than shut everything down and crashing into the launchpad fully fueled where it could do a lot of damage, the rocket immediately compensated for the loss of one engine and resumed a stable flight, allowing it to get clear.

This success does not negate the failure however. Astra needs to find out why one engine shut down.

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.
» Read more

Two new smallsat rockets now set for launch

Capitalism in space: The launch dates of two different new smallsat rockets is now confirmed.

First, Astra has obtained from the FAA a launch operator license that will allow it to launch rockets from now until March 2026. This license now allows the company to proceed with its August 27th first orbital launch of its Rocket-3 rocket. If successful, Astra hopes to move to monthly launches before the end of the year.

Second, Firefly has announced that it will attempt its own first orbital launch of its Alpha rocket on September 2nd. The company had been promising a launch before the end of the year, but until now had not set a date. The successful completion of a static fire test of the rocket cleared the way.

Three other smallsat rocket companies, Relativity, ABL, and Aevum, have also said they are targeting this year for their first orbital launches, but none has set any dates yet.

If successful, these companies will join Rocket Lab and Virgin Orbit in providing launch capabilities for tiny satellites like cubesats and nanosats.

Space Force adds three more rocket startups to its rapid launch program

Capitalism in space: The Space Force announced today that it has added the three smallsat rocket companies ABL, Astra, and Relativity to its program, dubbed OSP-4, to develop rockets that can be launched quickly at a moment’s notice.

OSP-4 is an indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity (IDIQ) contract for rapid acquisition of launch services. Vendors compete for individual orders, and have to be able to launch payloads larger than 400 pounds to any orbit within 12 to 24 months from contract award.

The OSP-4 contract vehicle was created in October 2019 and eight companies were selected then: Aevum, Firefly, Northrop Grumman, Rocket Lab, SpaceX., United Launch Alliance, VOX Space [Virgin Orbit], and X-Bow Launch.

There are now 11 vendors in the program that will compete for 20 missions over the next nine years. OSP-4 is authorized up to $986 million for launch contracts over that period.

Of these eleven companies, five have operational rockets (Northrop Grumman, Rocket Lab, SpaceX, Virgin Orbit, and ULA) and five have announced plans to do their first orbital launch this year (Aevum, ABL, Astra, Relativity, and Firefly), with Astra’s first orbital flight scheduled for later this month. The schedule of the remaining X-Bow remains unknown.

Astra to attempt orbital launch later in August

Capitalism in space: The smallsat rocket company Astra has announced that it will attempt to complete its first successful orbital launch before the end of this month, launching a Space Force satellite.

The U.S. Space Force has booked two missions with Astra, the Bay Area company announced today (Aug. 5). The first flight will launch a test payload for the Department of Defense’s Space Test Program from the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Kodiak, Alaska, during a window that runs from Aug. 27 through Sept. 11.

Astra has two previous test launches that attempted to reach orbit and failed. The second barely missed, because of a fuel mixture issue that had it run out of fuel prematurely.

If successful, this will make Astra the third operational American smallsat rocket company, following Rocket Lab and Virgin Orbit. Four others have promised launches in 2021. By next year the competition in this smallsat launch industry should be quite fierce.

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.

1 2