Astra CEO Chris Kemp previews Rocket 4.0, daily launches, and a smarter planet

In December 2020, Astra launched Rocket 3.2 to space. The successor, Rocket 3.3, will make… The post Astra CEO Chris Kemp previews Rocket 4.0, daily launches, and a smarter planet appeared first on

Astra CEO Chris Kemp previews Rocket 4.0, daily launches, and a smarter planet

In December 2020, Astra launched Rocket 3.2 to space. The successor, Rocket 3.3, will make Astra’s first flight with a payload on board as early as this summer. And by the end of the year, the Rocket 3 series is planned to launch on a monthly basis.

In 2022, Astra is planning to debut Rocket 4.0 in order to launch missions weekly. CEO Chris Kemp spoke about these steps and the ones that will follow, including daily launches from around the world, during a recent episode of NASASpaceflight Live.

Early Astra rockets

In July 2018, Astra launched their first rocket, Rocket 1.0, on a suborbital test flight from the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Kodiak, Alaska, the same site that would host the entirety of Astra’s early test flight program.

“We flew the first rocket with a suborbital license just about a year after we started the business,” told Kemp. “And these iterations were never intended to make it to orbit. In fact, they couldn’t make it to orbit. The upper stage of that first rocket was a hunk of metal. And we accepted each of these steps because we would learn a lot about, for example in that case, the first stage. And with each of these steps, the team got just a tremendous amount of data.”

This iterative approach to research and development was integral to Astra’s plan to quickly achieve an orbital launch capability.

“You’re seeing this same approach now being applied with the Starship program. This isn’t how SpaceX did it the first time, but it is definitely the best way to do it. And we applaud how they’re iterating and how they’re making these generations of spacecraft faster and better. And this is exactly what we’re doing.”

Rocket 1.0 lifts off from the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Kodiak, Alaska – via Astra

Astra launched Rocket 2.0, another suborbital test flight, just four months later in November 2018.  This was the final flight before the debut of the currently active Rocket 3 series, which incorporated several upgrades and changes from Rockets 1.0 and 2.0.

“The first rocket we did, 1.0, the nosecone cost almost a quarter of a million dollars because it was made out of carbon fiber. Much like the Rocket Lab rockets. We actually want the entire rocket to cost less than that in the end. So you can’t make the nosecone cost a quarter of a million dollars or even anywhere near that and get to the ultimate price target.”

“With the Rocket 2 series and 3 series, there were two different generations of the nosecones. And if you study the nosecone carefully, you’ll see the shape changes a little bit. And the price is now down around $25,000. So we’ve brought an order of magnitude cost out by using a really innovative aluminum and internal structure made out of aluminum tubes.”

In addition to fairing upgrades, the rockets also got bigger. “Between Rocket 1.0 and the Rocket 3 series, we got feedback from the market that we needed to put more payload in space. And with constellations like Kuiper, with the Starlink constellation being deployed, with OneWeb and several other constellations, we really wanted to address that entire market. And so we realized the rocket needed to be a bit bigger to put these communications satellites up. And so we increased the diameter of the rocket from 38 to 52 inches.”

Rocket 3 series

Rocket 3.0 was set to make a launch attempt with customer payloads on board as part of the DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) launch challenge, which sought a launch provider to conduct two orbital launches from different launch sites within just days of each other. On the final day of the launch window, Astra reached the terminal countdown, but a sensor issue caused an abort, and the DARPA launch challenge prize went unclaimed.

Rocket 3.0 is raised vertical ahead of Astra’s DARPA Launch Challenge attempt – via DARPA

“In the actual DARPA Challenge, we got to T-52 seconds. We were in terminal count. And what actually prevented us from launching, I was very proud of the team, because it was sensor input that we got. And it was probably as one of the tanks was pressurizing.”

Kemp explained that noises from the pressurizing tanks were at a frequency which caused an on board accelerometer to reset. “And it was super-interesting, because the entire XYZ didn’t reset, just one of the axes reset. Which was actually an undocumented feature in the sensor that we were using.”

“And if that had happened in a flight, it could have given our guidance computer data that could have caused really, the consequences of that could be very difficult to predict. And you don’t want a rocket, as it’s lifting off, to have a guidance computer that doesn’t know what direction the thing’s pointed, even for a couple of milliseconds. So we decided the safe thing to do would be to not conduct the launch until we fully reviewed the cause of that issue.”

After the DARPA challenge window closed, the payloads were removed, and Rocket 3.0 reverted to a test flight status. But before another launch attempt could be made, the vehicle exploded on the launch pad in March 2020.

Keeping with the iterative development approach, Astra quickly moved to Rocket 3.1. “We brought one out for the DARPA Challenge, almost launched it. Blew it up by accident. Launched the next one. Launched the next one.”

Rocket 3.1 was the first Rocket 3 series vehicle to fly, lifting off in September 2020. “We were able to quickly build another launcher, which reinforced the idea that this portable launch system was a great strategy. Because we could go back, put it all in containers, rebuild, send it back up there, and then launch again six months later.”

Rocket 3.1 lifts off – via Astra/John Kraus

This flight was terminated via a commanded engine shutdown approximately 30 seconds after liftoff. “We had another really complex issue with guidance, where the software system had the rocket clocked in a slightly different configuration. And it was going to fly off course, so we had to turn it off. And so the safety system just turned the engines off and the thing fell out of the sky after about 30 seconds.”

“All the data other than that was perfect. And so we had one line of code in the guidance system that needed to be fixed, but as we scoured all the other data, the engines performed great. The pressurization system performed great. Terminal count performed great.”

And so the teams moved on to Rocket 3.2. While the goal was to make progress towards reaching orbit, the teams were not afraid of falling short, so long as meaningful data was collected to improve the system for the next attempt.

“We didn’t expect that flight to really reach space, and we didn’t expect the upper stage to perform as well as it did because it wasn’t tested and qualified to. I mean, we were really just trying to get the first stage working.”

“When the upper stage lit, and the upper stage flew away, and the guidance system worked beautifully, and we made it to space, we passed the Von Karman line, we kept going, we kept going, we kept going.”

“I’ve never seen more people see the point in their career and the point in their life where they’ve achieved something so incredible that, it was absolutely awe-inspiring.”

In the end, the flight fell short of achieving orbit due to a fuel mixture issue on the rocket’s second stage. Kemp explained that, had Astra targeted a different orbit requiring a little less performance, the vehicle could have achieved orbit.

“And certainly it could have achieved the orbit that we had targeted if we didn’t have 9% residual liquid oxygen on the upper stage.”

Astra has since achieved a “near perfect” liquid oxygen and kerosene depletion on a full duration burn at their California factory and testing facility.

Now, Astra is preparing to reach orbit for the first time with Rocket 3.3. In addition to correcting the fuel mixture problem, Astra has again increased the size of the rocket and will be placing customer payloads on board.

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  • “Between Rocket 3.2, which flew a few months ago, and Rocket 3.3, we’ve increased its length by five feet. Because additional efficiencies in the engines mean that we can actually burn more fuel. And so because the diameter was already large enough, we could simply extend its length.”

    Following the Rocket 3.3 launch, the “launcher,” referring to the launch mount and erector on the ground, will remain in Kodiak to support more flights while Astra will send another launcher to a new site to support missions beginning later this year.

    “We were actually only planning on making about eight of these rockets. So we’ve increased the production run for the Rocket 3 series to a dozen. And we’ll be flying those monthly starting in the fourth quarter. And then that monthly rate will ramp up to weekly with the Rocket 4 series starting next year.”

    Setting Astra apart from competition

    Kemp described how he sees Astra’s role as a smallsat launch provider compared to other small offerings as well as large rockets.

    Astra’s factory – via Astra

    “I think there are some just fantastic companies out there that are building massive rockets that will have the ability take large amounts of cargo up into space. These are very large rockets, getting larger in a lot of cases. And we think that’s a critical piece of infrastructure when you’re going to Mars, putting large amounts of things in one place in space.”

    “But what we’re seeing is, we’re seeing hundreds of companies that have all formed over the past five, ten years. They all have different satellites. They’re all very small. They all want to go to different places in space, typically from different places on Earth, all on different schedules.”

    “So you can think of Astra of just filling in that gap in the market where we can access anywhere in space, on any schedule, from anywhere on Earth.”

    In order to make this offering at low cost, Kemp says reusability will not play a part at Astra. “The way to optimize the economics of a high-volume, low-cost system like the one that we’re building is to not attempt to reuse the system.”

    “If it costs millions of dollars to make the rocket, you totally want to reuse it, and so I can see why companies like Rocket Lab — when they have a Ferrari, carbon fiber, expensive thing — totally don’t want to throw that away. So I see why they’re going down that path. But for Astra, where our target is to make the entire rocket for a couple hundred thousand dollars, it just doesn’t make any sense for us.”

    Rocket Lab’s Electron first stage is recovered following the Return to Sender mission. Kemp says that Astra will differ from Rocket Lab in that they will not develop a reusable rocket – via Rocket Lab

    In addition to Rocket Lab, which was the first of a new wave of commercial small launch providers to achieve orbit, Kemp compared Astra’s costs to that of Virgin Orbit, which achieved orbit for the first time in January 2021.

    “How do we go and operate a system globally from as many spaceports as possible? How do we manufacture, some day, thousands of rockets a year and truly democratize access to space? And so who’s competing with us on that front? It’s not clear. We have Virgin Orbit, with a vehicle that they sell for $12 million. That’s three times more expensive. Carbon fiber. You need to deploy a 747 every time you fly it. With twelve shipping containers behind it. That’s our competitor.”

    Astra recently won a launch contract from NASA for the TROPICS mission, in which Astra beat not only Rocket Lab and Virgin Orbit, but also SpaceX’s Starship system. Kemp says the team was both surprised and humbled to be competing, and winning, against Starship.

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    EGS starts Artemis 1 SLS Core Stage lift

    After a month of thermal protection system foam repairs and other preparations, workers with NASA’s… The post EGS starts Artemis 1 SLS Core Stage lift appeared first on

    EGS starts Artemis 1 SLS Core Stage lift

    After a month of thermal protection system foam repairs and other preparations, workers with NASA’s Exploration Ground Systems (EGS) and prime test operations and support contractor Jacobs at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida started lift operations on the Space Launch System (SLS) Core Stage for Artemis 1 in the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) on June 10. Early on June 11, two of the overhead cranes in the VAB rotated the Core Stage from horizontal to vertical in the Transfer Aisle.

    Work will continue over the weekend of June 12-13 to lift the stage up into High Bay 3, position it in between the two SLS Boosters already stacked on Mobile Launcher-1, and bolt them together.

    Lift and breakover begins after extended TPS repairs

    The first flight SLS Core Stage was finally rotated to its vertical launch orientation at KSC early on the morning of June 11. It was expected to be lifted from the transfer aisle up towards the ceiling of the VAB and then over into High Bay 3 to be lowered into place between the two SLS Solid Rocket Boosters (SRB) stacked on the Mobile Launcher.

    “Stacking” of the Core and Boosters is be a big milestone in any SLS launch campaign, but work on all the other Artemis 1 flight hardware at KSC was delayed waiting for this Core Stage lift and eventual mate, increasing its significance in even this first launch processing flow. Once the mate is completed, the Core-Boosters “partial stack” will allow the EGS and Jacobs integrated operations team to branch out on parallel work activities to fully stack the rest of the vehicle, conduct special first-time tests, and finish pre-launch checkouts.

    The SLS Core Stage was the final element to arrive for launch, completing its special Green Run design verification campaign in April and arriving at KSC later that same month.

    Following the full duration test-firing of the stage in the B-2 Test Stand at Stennis on March 18, some post Green Run refurbishment work was deferred until after the Core was shipped to Florida. Standard post-firing refurbishment of the four RS-25 Core Stage engines was completed at Stennis, but work to refurbish the stage’s foam insulation for its cryogenic propellant tanks and the foil and cork heat protection around the base heatshield were deferred to KSC.

    Credit: NASA/Cory Huston.

    (Photo Caption: EGS and Jacobs lift team members monitor Core Stage lift operations in the VAB Transfer Aisle during the midnight hours of June 11. The yellow lift spider attached to the forward end of the stage is ground equipment supporting lift and breakover activities. It will be removed after the stage is hard-mated to the Boosters as a part of preparations to continue stacking the rest of the SLS vehicle elements.)

    After four weeks of thermal protection system (TPS) refurbishment work and standard post-arrival preparations, scaffolding around the stage was removed, purges were disconnected, and self-propelled motorized transporters (SPMTs) were used to move the carriers with the Core Stage on board north in the transfer aisle, on June 6, to the area in between the VAB’s high bays to prepare for dual-crane operations to reorient the Core from horizontal to vertical and then lift it into High Bay 3 for mating to the Boosters.

    A “lift spider” was again attached to the front of the Core Stage the next day on June 7; the approximately 20-ton, yellow lifting fixture is identical to another unit that stayed attached to the stage at Stennis for the whole Green Run campaign. The fixture provides the forward lifting point for the stage.

    Once the stage was moved into the north transfer aisle, it had been expected that the team would press into lift operations; however, completing all TPS repair work delayed the final lift. Delays were anticipated during this first-time-through launch vehicle and spacecraft integration process for Artemis 1, and EGS planned for the work to take a risk-assessed 10 months to complete once the Core Stage arrived at KSC.

    EGS assessed as much as four months of risk to a schedule showing six months of work; the current no earlier than (NET) date for launch readiness is late-November, but going through the first-time learning curves and accumulating delays of a few days here and there is more likely to push launch readiness into early 2022. The fully “risk assessed” launch readiness date is March 2022.

    After the additional TPS work was completed in the north transfer aisle, lift preparations resumed on June 9 with the connection of the two cranes to raise the Core Stage off its transportation carrier. One of the two 325-ton VAB cranes was attached to the lift spider, and the 175-ton transfer aisle crane was hooked up to lift points on the structural ring of the stage’s engine section.

    After the lift started on June 10, with the cranes taking up the load of the Core Stage from its carrier pieces, workers performed a breakover operation early on the morning of June 11 to rotate the stage vertical where it could be controlled by the single 325-ton crane on top. The trailing lifting fixture and crane were disconnected.

    The next major step will be to lift the stage up into the diaphragm opening between the transfer aisle and the High Bay 3 integration cell.

    Credit: NASA/Cory Huston.

    (Photo Caption: Core Stage-1 is rotated from a horizontal orientation to vertical in the VAB Transfer Aisle early on June 11.  The 175-ton crane on the left is lowering and translating the aft end of the stage while on the right one of two 325-ton cranes is raising the forward end.  After the stage was vertical, the trailing 175-ton crane was disconnected.)

    The crane will then lower the stage down into position between the two Solid Rocket Boosters. To create extra clearance while the Core is being lowered between them, “puller straps” will be used to pull the boosters slightly outward.

    The stage has both forward and aft attach points where it will be bolted to the SRBs. A thrust beam runs through the middle of the intertank in the Core, between the forward attach points of each booster, to help channel the loads of the SRB thrust during launch.

    In the forward “ball and socket” connection, the Core Stage and the sockets on its fittings rest on top of the Booster attach points — where a separation bolt will join them. Three struts on the aft end of each Booster connect to the engine section of the stage.

    Pre-mate Core Stage work

    Moving the Core Stage into position was only possible after completing post Green Run TPS refurbishment work in the VAB Transfer Aisle where it could be done with less weather interruptions versus outside in the B-2 Test Stand. The VAB also provides better access to the stage in a horizontal orientation.

    The stage was rolled off NASA’s Pegasus barge on April 29 and taken into the southern part of the VAB transfer aisle. After the stage and its transportation carrier were set down in the low-bay area of the transfer aisle, scaffolding was set up for repairs to the acreage and for closeout foam sprays where cracks had developed during propellant loading cycles and the long test-firing at Stennis.

    After EGS and Jacobs completed receiving inspections of the stage, an approximately four-week timeline was established to perform all the foam repairs and refurbishment — mostly at the forward end of the vehicle. Within that same timeline, more typical Core Stage KSC arrival activities like installation of Flight Termination System (FTS) components were completed as well. Given the opportunity of time, it was decided to also start the cork TPS work on the bottom of the stage by removing the burned areas on the base heatshield.

    “We had time and resources available to work it ahead of stacking,” Michael Alldredge, NASA SLS TPS Subsystem Manager, said in an email. He added: “We didn’t really know how difficult it would be to get [the damaged cork] off, so we wanted to start as soon as possible in case we ran into problems.”

    Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett.

    (Photo Caption: The greenish primer coating the base heatshield can be seen in this June 4 image in areas where the layer of charred cork thermal protection was removed during the month of May at KSC. The removed cork was damaged by the eight-minute long Green Run test-firing in mid-March. After the Core is stacked vertically with its Boosters, new sections of cork material will be applied to the metal substrate and then coated with a white paint like the rest of the engine section and boattail.)

    The engine section and the boattail at its aft end are covered with cork panels, which are then coated with a white paint that acts as a moisture barrier. For the Green Run test-firings, the boattail was covered with an additional layer of foil tape to protect against the extra heat generated during a full eight minute flight-duration firing of the four-engine RS-25 cluster.

    The aft face of the boattail, the base heatshield, took the brunt of the heating during the test-firing; adjacent areas such as the boattail fairing and the engine section barrel suffered little heat damage.

    For the repair, Boeing removed some of the affected cork and also started removing leftover foil tape. The base heatshield refurbishment will now be completed after stacking, where work can be done without much conflict with the integrated test and checkout of the vehicle.

    “There is a good bit of TPS work to perform on the base heat shield once we get into the High Bay,” Alldredge said. “We took the damaged cork off in the transfer aisle, and will re-install and paint it in the high bay.”

    Preparations for Integrated Test and Check-Out next

    Once the Core is fully mated to the boosters, work in the High Bay will branch out in parallel on multiple paths to get ready for power up and Integrated Test and Checkout (ITCO) operations of the Artemis 1 vehicle. Assembling the rest of the SLS elements on top of the Core Stage will occur in parallel with connecting the Mobile Launcher umbilicals to the Core and preparing for an Integrated Modal Test.

    Stacking of the upper SLS elements will begin with the Launch Vehicle Stage Adapter (LVSA), which will be lifted on top of the Core Stage and bolted into place. That operation is currently scheduled for the week of June 14 but is dependent on completion of Core Stage mate operations.

    Credit: NASA/Frank Michaux.

    (Photo Caption: The two SLS Solid Rocket Boosters (SRB) are seen from the top of the Mobile Launcher’s umbilical tower on June 9. An RS-25 engine service platform can be seen in between the Boosters along with a recently-delivered Tail Service Mast Umbilical plate.)

    The Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS), derived by United Launch Alliance from its Delta IV launch vehicle, would be stacked next. The ICPS is currently in the Multi-Payload Processing Facility (MPPF), where it was loaded with hydrazine for its attitude control system on June 4.

    It is currently scheduled to be moved to the VAB the week of June 21.

    Because this is the first time an SLS vehicle is being integrated, the SLS Program and its contractors have formed a quick response “tiger team” to be ready for any issues that come up as EGS and Jacobs perform the stacking work.

    After the ICPS is stacked, an Orion Stage Adapter would follow, with the first round of stacking being completed with a Mass Simulator for Orion, after which teams will perform an Interface Verification Test that will see the EGS ground control system power up the fully assembled SLS for the first time.

    The Interface Verification Test will validate that the vehicle and ground systems are correctly connected and operating with each other.

    After this, an Umbilical Release and Retract Test will occur to ensure all of the Mobile Launcher’s swing arms can properly and safely detach and swing away as planned from the vehicle.

    The Integrated Modal Test, where workers shake the vehicle, will follow at the end of the first series of tests.

    While the initial SLS powered checkout and modal testing is being performed in the VAB, the Artemis 1 Orion spacecraft will complete its standalone, “offline” processing. Like the ICPS, Orion is currently in the MPPF, now with its flight commodities fully loaded. After completing propellant loading of the Service Module in April, the Crew Module’s gaseous helium tanks were loaded in early-May ahead of Crew Module hydrazine tank fueling in mid-May.

    Current plans are for Orion to be moved to the Launch Abort System Facility for its final offline outfitting for launch, where the inert Launch Abort System (LAS) for Artemis 1 — which combines a live jettison motor with inert abort and attitude control motors — will be stacked on top of the Crew Module. Four ogive-shaped fairing panels will also be installed to encapsulate the Crew Module.

    After the LAS is installed and the first round of SLS testing is completed in the VAB, Orion will then be transported to the VAB to be lifted and mated to SLS no earlier than mid-August.

    The Artemis 1 mission management team is currently working through flight readiness analysis cycles, calculating lunar launch opportunities and vehicle performance margins. Currently, the first launch period available for an NET late-November 2021 readiness date is Launch Period 15, which opens on November 23 and runs through December 10. Following that, Launch Period 16 is December 21 through January 3, 2022, with Launch Period 17 running January 17 through January 30.

    (Lead image credits: NASA/Cory Huston.)

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