Rather than climbing skyward, the 43-foot-tall rocket hovered sideways off its launch pad before attempting to right itself, at which point it climbed about 30 miles into the air only to cut its engine power and plunge back into the ocean.
Astra is among a long list of commercial rocket companies pushing to make space a place of competitive business rather than the sole domain of governments. But whether or not a startup can successfully put rockets into orbit, as companies such as SpaceX, Rocket Lab and Virgin Orbit have been able to do, has often been a determining factor in whether a company can stay financially afloat.
Saturday’s launch appeared to go off the rails from the start. The rocket burned through precious fuel as it made its first moves sideways, rather than upward.
“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,” the company said in a press release. After about two and a half minutes, flight controllers then ordered “an all engine-shutdown command, ending the flight.”
It’s not uncommon for a rocket company to burn through a few failed attempts before putting a rocket in space. Elon Musk’s SpaceX, the most prominent among this new generation of launch companies, had three failed attempts before finally putting one of its Falcon 1 rockets into orbit in 2008. Richard Branson-backed startup Virgin Orbit, which is a direct competitor of Astra in the small-launch-vehicle sector, had one failure in 2020 before its first successful orbital launch earlier this year. Rocket Lab, also a direct Astra competitor, also had one failure before its first success, and it endured two additional mishaps out of its 20 previous launches.
How Astra stacks up in the launch industry
SpaceX’s Falcon rockets — which are used to haul large satellites, batches of satellites or NASA astronauts into orbit — stand at more than 200 feet tall, or roughly the height of four of Astra’s rockets stacked on top of each other. The idea behind companies such as Astra is to create smaller rockets that haul less mass into space, but can be built quickly and cheaply and launched agilely.
Astra is one of dozens of companies that plan to use lightweight rockets to make frequent trips to space to drop off satellites.
When asked in a company Q&A posted online how Astra plans to stand out in such a crowded industry, Adam London, Astra’s founder and chief technology officer, said: “Rockets are typically artisanal, crafted objects. You make one at a time, and they’re very complicated. But when you really get into it, they don’t need to be that complicated, particularly when you’re not flying people or critical national assets, and they don’t absolutely, positively have to work 100% of the time.”
In other words, Astra plans to mass produce rockets to make them cheaper, and it doesn’t put too much emphasis on having a pristine success rate.