Astra plays the long game

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Through time with each rocket launch being streamed live on Youtube, millions of people get to watch the successes and failures of the space company in the front row. Astra, a rocket startup turned public company, Little both. But according to CEO Chris Kemp, the goal isn’t perfect.

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“I think a lot of people expect every launch to be perfect,” he told TechCrunch. “I think that actually Astra has to do so many launches that no one else thinks about it.”

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How many launches? After all, Astra wants to achieve a daily start frequency; meanwhile, the company plans weekly launches as early as next year. It’s an important part of how the company aims to win among an increasingly crowded circle of small launch developers—not by being perfect, but by being so low in cost and in volume that the relative risk of a few catastrophic failures doesn’t matter.

To get there, Astra moves at breakneck speed. Remarkably, it became the fastest company in history to go into orbit in November, six years after the company was founded.

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Kemp summed up the approach Thursday at Astra’s. “Cosmonautics Day”“The approach we took was not to design and build a PowerPoint, do all the analysis, and then, after five or 10 years, finally maybe build a rocket,” he said. “It was within 18 months of starting the company in this garage, obtaining a license to launch and launching our first rocket, and then relaunching a few months later, and again, and again, and again.”

“It was an unpopular approach to solving this problem,” he added.

Small, cheap and light

Can the market support the daily launch frequency? Astra is betting on what it can. From Astra’s point of view, the launch industry is like a curve, with companies like SpaceX at one end, running crewed missions, delivering payloads into space, and even eventually even attempting to colonize other planets. At the other end of the curve is the Astra: small, cheap and light.

The middle of the curve is what Kemp called “the valley of death.”

“You can either scale up the rocket or you can scale up the factory,” he said. “We think there are winners at both ends of the spectrum, and in the middle…it will be very difficult for all the companies that are somewhere in between.”

Part of the company’s confidence comes from the growth in the number of constellations of satellites planned or under development to be launched into orbit. Astra is betting that vendors are willing to risk a small percentage of their spacecraft that don’t reach orbit in exchange for launch speed, lower costs and a more personalized orbital trajectory.

This approach is embodied in the company’s solutions: rockets made from inexpensive materials such as aluminum; using machine-made cast parts instead of 3D printed parts; a launch system that only requires a team of six to deploy and can fit in a standard shipping container. Astra continues to simplify. His next rocket, Rocket 4.0, will only have two larger engines, as opposed to the five smaller engines found in Rocket 3.0; and the whole process will be even more automated, so that the flight control team will be reduced from less than ten people to two people.

Astra rocket manufacturing facility in Alameda, California.

Astra calls the new process Launch System 2.0. The first test flights of the System 4.0 launcher are expected to take place later this year. And when the rocket is finally ready for commercial operations, Astra said it will be able to launch 300kg into low Earth orbit for a base price of $3.95 million. In contrast, Rocket Lab’s standard price for an Electron rocket with the same amount of payload is about $7.5 million per launch, although Rocket Lab told TechCrunch that the final price depends on each customer’s specific mission requirements.

Such an ambitious launch frequency requires an equally ambitious production scheme. Kemp told TechCrunch that the company’s 250,000-square-foot manufacturing facility allows the company to produce one rocket a day. To further increase Astra production hired longtime Apple leader Benjamin Lyon in February last year to lead the development of the company. The transition from consumer electronics to rocket ships may seem unusual, but it’s yet another indication of Astra’s intention to achieve a scale of production never before seen in the aerospace industry.

As part of its plan to increase launch frequency, Astra earlier this month announced plans to launch from Britain’s SaxaVord as early as 2023. And if everything goes according to the company’s plan, this will only be the beginning.

NASA TROPICS

Astra’s next launch will be three launches for NASA under the agency’s TROPICS program. Astra has received an $8 million launch contract for TROPICS (Time-Resolved Precipitation Pattern and Storm Intensity Observations with Small Satellite Constellation). These satellites will be used to measure variables such as temperature, humidity and pressure within storm systems.

When Kemp discussed launches with NASA’s Will McCarthy at Space Technology Day, he reaffirmed Astra’s view on reliability, though it sounded almost like a hedge: “I know the team will go out of their way to make sure all three launches and all your satellites are deployed, but it’s nice to know that the price of three launches allows NASA to complete a mission where even if only two are successful […] it’s nice to know that even NASA is designing constellations so that their overall performance is the ultimate goal, without thinking about every single satellite, every rocket launch.”

Kemp told shareholders during the first quarter earnings call that the company aims to begin launches this quarter and possibly reach a monthly pace to complete all three.

“If two out of three [launches] successful, this is not a mission failure,” he said. “It’s just a lower update rate for the constellation.”


Credit: techcrunch.com /

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