This week the entity often known as “Stealth Space Company” went public in a big way. Small launch provider Astra started a media campaign and unveiled its website, taking orders for launch starting in October 2020.
Astra’s big reveal came on Monday with a Bloomberg feature by Ashlee Vance and with subsequent media tours taking place this week, judging from various Twitter comments. The Alameda, California startup has been working hard over the past three years to build a low-cost small launcher with an initial target price of $2.5 million, working on the premise of lowering costs by mass production of hardware.
“We’re the world’s largest space company you’ve never heard of,” touts an Astra video on the company’s website. The video shows clips of the company’s two suborbital test launches from the Kodiak, Alaska spaceport, with both vehicles clearing the launch pad without incident.
Astra successfully launched “Rocket 1.0” on July 2018 followed by Rocket 2.0 on November 2018. The company started building its rocket factory in July 2019 and started series production of Rocket 3.0 in January of this year.
Eric Berger of Ars Technica visited the Astra factory this week. In a brief exchange on Twitter, he described Astra as “New space to the max. Fast, cheap, iterative, willing to fail.” You can find his detailed article here.
Part of “willing to fail” may be up to three launch attempts – or more, suggests Berger, since the company is building five Rocket 3.0 models — to successfully put a payload into orbit starting in March 2020, followed by further refinement launches towards launching paying customers this fall using a Rocket 4.0. Launch reservations are available in 2020 and 2021, according to the company’s website, with dedicated missions putting 50 kilograms to 150 kilograms into a 500 kilometer sun-synchronous reference orbit.
One part of Astra’s low-cost approach is minimal ground infrastructure, enabling the rocket to be launched using portable infrastructure carried in four tractor trailers, Berger said. Such an approach is likely the way the company will conduct operations at NASA Wallops Island, VA to fulfill its DARPA contract for conducting multiple launches from different sites in a short period of time.
Low-cost launch is very attractive to the U.S. military and commercial companies, enabling rapid access to space for the military and more economical ways to get satellites into orbit for both. Currently, Rocket Lab dominates the small launch space under 1000 kilograms, but $7 million starting price for a launch isn’t as cheap at the $2.5 million list price Astra has touted in media interviews.
Rocket Lab isn’t standing still. It plans to recover and reuse the Electron first stage to increase launch rates and low costs. Currently, Rocket Lab says it has the capability to produce up to 12 Electron vehicles out of its new Long Beach, California facility. Reusing the Electron first stage would enable the company to nearly double its launch rates without having to add an additional production line.
Astra believes with production of hundreds of rockets a year – a lofty goal also aspired to by failed Vector Space Systems – it can lower costs down to $1 million per launch. Vector also believed there is a market for upwards of 100 low-cost launches per year, but first must show success to put the first payload into orbit.
So far Astra has raised upwards of $100 million. Among the company’s backers are Airbus Ventures, the investment arm of Airbus. The company’s current PR and marketing campaigns indicate it feels prepared to conduct business, but it is unclear if the company needs to raise more funding to reach a break-even point.
Other launch companies attempting “first flights” this year are Virgin Orbit and Firefly. Virgin is expected to conduct its first LauncherOne mission within weeks while Firefly’s efforts to launch early this year have been pushed back due to a fire that that took place in January engine testing.