Astra completes investigation into August launch failure, aims for next attempt in October

Rocket launch startup Astra provided more details into its rather remarkable mission failure in August, during which the small launch vehicle hovered and drifted in the air before managing a brief vertical ascension. Even as it recounted the debacle, the company is ready to try again, opening the launch window for its next attempt on October 27.

This will be the fifth launch attempt for the company, which recently went public via a SPAC merger that injected it with around $500 million in cash. The rocket, dubbed “LV0007,” will carry a test payload for the U.S. Space Force.

This most recent flight on August 28 failed due to a propellant leakage, which caused the shutdown of one of the rocket’s engines, Astra chief Engineer Benjamin Lyon explained in a blog post. The rocket did manage to ascend as high as around thirty miles before the launch was terminated around 148 seconds after take-off. The company, along with the Federal Aviation Administration, conducted an investigation into the cause of the failure.

“The issue we encountered was something we hadn’t seen before,” Lyon said. After it leaked, it seems that the first stage propellant distribution system became trapped between the rocket and the launcher. Exhaust from the other engines caused that trapped propellant to ignite, severing the electronic connections to the fuel pump and shutting down the engine less than one second after takeoff.

Lyon says the company has taken steps to ensure these issues do not recur on the next test flight, including tweaking the rocket-to-launcher design to ensure that even if leaks do occur, the two propellants will not mix. Astra also modified the propellant supply mechanism and improved other verification processes, he said. “Together, we believe these changes significantly reduce the likelihood of seeing a similar event in the future.”

LV0007 will take off from the company’s launch site in Kodiak, Alaska, with the launch window opening on October 27 through October 31. There is an additional backup window from November 5 to November 12.

“Data from the two-and-a-half-minute flight provided valuable insights that we have incorporated into LV0007 and future launch vehicles,” Astra CEO Chris Kemp said. “Our team is looking forward to returning to flight and learning more about our launch system – consistent with our launch and learn philosophy.”

Astra’s first commercial launch fails to reach orbit

Astra, now a public company, ran into a problem during its first commercial launch (the mission carried a test payload contracted by the U.S. Space Force as part of its Space Test Program) that meant the rocket never made it to orbit. On Saturday, the rocket ignited all its engines at liftoff time on the pad in Alaska, but one of the five engines failed immediately after, which resulted in a rather remarkable hover and drift before but managed to get enough lift to ascend skyward.

Amazingly, despite the initial wobble and sideways list, the rocket did manage to climb to a max altitude of around 50KM (or around 164,000 feet) before the company issued a shutdown command and the rocket safely returned to Earth. That meant it didn’t reach its target, an orbital destination for the simulation of the payload deploy involved in its contracted test.

“We regret that we were unable to accomplish all mission objectives for the U.S. Space Force; however, we captured a tremendous amount of data from this test flight,” said Chris Kemp, Founder, Chairman and CEO of Astra in a press release issued by the company about the launch. “We will incorporate learnings from this test into future launch vehicles, including LV0007, which is currently in production.”

Astra last flew in December, when one of its test launches reached space, but fell just short of achieving orbital velocity. Astra at the time said that they were confident all that would be required to attain a good orbit were software tweaks to the navigation system.


Virgin Orbit to go public via $3.2B SPAC deal

Virgin Orbit is set to go public via a merger with a special purpose acquisitions company (SPAC), the company has confirmed. The deal values the combined enterprise at $3.2 billion, and will provide Virgin Orbit with $483 million in cash at close, including a $100 million PIPE. The combined company will trade under the ticker VORB on the NASDAQ if and when the transaction concludes.

In June, CNBC reported that such a deal was in the works, and it’s been a popular exit option for private space startups in recent months. Rocket Lab’s SPAC merger was just approved, for instance, and it’ll begin trading on Wednesday, and Richard Branson’s other space company, Virgin Galactic, was the first big SPAC deal that ushered in the craze.

Virgin Galactic, which focuses on flying people to suborbital space, and Virgin Orbit, which transports small satellite payloads to low Earth orbit using similar technology, used to be a single company before the two split to provide more focus on their respective markets. Both Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit made significant progress this year, achieving milestone flights, including a first full crew space launch for Galactic, and a first commercial satellite payload delivery mission for Orbit.

Virgin Orbit launches its LauncherOne rocket from the wing of a customized 747 aircraft, which acts as a fully reusable first stage for the overall launch system. The company also has a subsidiary called VOX Space that its as a dedicated launch service provider to the national security launch market.

NextGen, the blank check company that Virgin Orbit is merging with to complete this transaction, is led by a former Goldman & Sachs partner, and will provide up to $383 million in cash from its funds held in trust when the merger goes through.

FAA streamlines commercial launch rules to keep the rockets flying

The FAA has published its updated rules for commercial space launches and reentries, streamlining and modernizing the large and complicated set of regulations. With rockets launching in greater numbers and variety, and from more providers, it makes sense to get a bit of the red tape out of the way.

The rules provide for licensing of rocket launch operators and approval of individual launches and reentry plans, among other things. As you can imagine, such rules must be complex in the first place, more so when they’ve been assembled piecemeal for years to accommodate a quickly moving industry.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao called the revisions a “historic, comprehensive update.” They consolidate four sets of regulations and unify licensing and safety rules under a single umbrella, while allowing flexibility for different types of operators or operations.

According to a press release from the FAA, the new rules allow:

  • A single operator’s license that can be used to support multiple launches or reentries from potentially multiple launch site locations.
  • Early review when applicants submit portions of their license application incrementally.
  • Applicants to negotiate mutually agreeable reduced time frames for submittals and application review periods.
  • Applicants to apply for a safety element approval with a license application, instead of needing to submit a separate application.
  • Additional flexibility on how to demonstrate high consequence event protection.
  • Neighboring operations personnel to stay during launch or reentry in certain circumstances.
  • Ground safety oversight to be scoped to better fit the safety risks and reduce duplicative requirements when operating at a federal site.

In speaking with leaders in the commercial space industry, a common theme is the burden of regulation. Any reform that simplifies and unifies will likely be welcomed by the community.

The actual regulations are hundreds of pages long, so it’s still hardly a simple task to get a license and start launching rockets. But at least it isn’t several sets of 500-page documents that you have to accommodate simultaneously.

The new rules have been submitted for entry in the Federal Register, and will take effect 90 days after that happens. In addition, the FAA will be putting out Advisory Circulars for public comment — additions and elaborations on the rules that the agency says there may be as many as two dozen of in the next year. You can keep up with those here.