Astra Space saw the sixth rocket it has attempted to launch since 2018 fail to reach orbit. Saturday’s failure will test the patience of the company’s engineers, who were convinced that this time, the vehicle would perform as expected. It will test investors too.
The company’s LV0006 rocket tilted and slide sideways a moment after getting off the ground in Alaska. Shares of Astra fell 18.7% to close at $9.49.
This time, Astra was attempting to launch an experimental payload for the US Space Force at a military base in Alaska. Something went wrong immediately as the rocket ignited.
One of its five engines failed, unbalancing the machine and sending it gliding away horizontally as automated controls struggled to keep on course. The rocket reached an altitude of 50 km before flight controllers shut down the mission for safety purposes.
The launch safety team shut down the rocket’s remaining engines and terminated the flight. LV0006 reached an altitude of about 164,000 feet (or 50 kilometers), with Astra yet to have a rocket successfully make it to orbit.
Astra is investigating the cause of the issue, with Kemp saying that the company collected “a tremendous amount of data from the flight and [is] in the process of reviewing it.”
The company said it opened a mishap investigation and is working with the Federal Aviation Administration on the inquiry into the cause of the failure.
Hold-down restraints released after engine start Saturday, but one of the Delphin engines shut down less than a second after liftoff, according to Astra, which is headquartered in Alameda, California.
The loss of thrust — a single Delphin engine produces about 6,500 pounds of thrust at sea level — caused the rocket to falter near the launch site. The launch vehicle, designated Rocket 3.3 or LV0006, then flew sideways until the remaining four engines could power the booster into the sky.
The rocket finally started its upward trajectory, continuing through maximum dynamic pressure — when structural loads on the rocket are highest — and reaching supersonic speeds before a range safety officer on the ground issued a flight termination command about two-and-a-half minutes after liftoff.
The termination command shut down all four of the remaining Delphin engines, after the rocket apparently deviated from its pre-approved flight corridor.
Such issues are to be expected during a rocket’s development, Astra representatives have said.
Astra had not encountered this problem before, and the company has already taken steps to reduce the odds that it will happen again, Lyon said. For example, Astra has tweaked the design of its rocket-launcher interfaces so that propellants will not mix together even if they leak.
Those changes have been implemented on the company’s next rocket, LV007, which will get a chance to fly soon.
Like LV006, LV007 will carry a test payload for the Department of Defense’s Space Test Program, company representatives said.
The U.S. Space Force contracted Astra for the test flight Saturday. The military paid for the mission to carry a “non-deployable” payload comprising sensors and instruments to measure the environment satellites would encounter during an Astra launch.
The company, has about $450 million of cash on its balance sheet thanks to investment garnered while going public, which should give it time to get its rocket functioning again. But it faces equally deep-pocketed competitors.
The vehicle is 43 feet tall and fits in the small-rocket segment of the launch market. Astra’s goal is to eventually launch as many of its small rockets as it can, aiming to launch one rocket a day by 2025 and drop its $2.5 million price point even further.