On Monday, Astra came within 53 seconds of launching its Rocket 3.0 from a spaceport in southern Alaska. With less than a minute to go in the countdown, a sensor delivered some data about the rocket that Astra’s chief executive, Chris Kemp, said “really concerned us.”
Despite the prospect of losing out on a $2 million check from the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and potentially $10 million more later this month, Astra engineers halted the launch attempt. They thought the problem may lie with a faulty sensor, as bad data was intermittent, but they weren’t sure.
“By making the decision to not fly today, we’ll have the opportunity to fly this rocket safely at a later date,” Kemp said. He said the company is likely “weeks” away from trying again, rather than months.
The DARPA Launch Challenge—which sought to demonstrate flexible and responsive launch capabilities in days, not years, for national defense—gave Astra essentially a month’s notice to prepare a rocket and launch it from Alaska. The company moved quickly, shipping its small booster to the launch site, and setting up the location in less than two weeks. A combination of poor weather over the weekend, and the technical issue on Monday scuttled the chance. “We were very sorry not to hand over a big check today,” said Todd Master, manager of the launch challenge for DARPA.
The failure to launch Monday does not diminish what Astra accomplished. The privately-backed venture from Alameda, Calif., was the last company left standing in a competition with 18 teams that originally qualified. And the reality is that they did what almost no other company ever has done with a liquid-fueled, orbital rocket by moving so quickly from the factory to the launch pad and attempting liftoff. It is especially notable as this is the first time the company has tried an orbital launch of any kind.
That no company won the challenge underscores how difficult it remains to build rockets—even small ones—and put them into orbit rapidly. Moreover, this is something that DARPA has been pushing for a long time, dating all the way back to the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in 2001. If it was easy, someone would have done it already.
Back in 2003, DARPA created the Falcon—Force Application and Launch from CONtinental United States—program. The Falcon program had two separate goals. The first involved development of a hypersonic weapon, and the second a low-cost launcher that could deliver at least 1,000 pounds to orbit for $5 million per launch. In addition to giving the military a new launch capability, DARPA hoped this would stimulate a stagnant US aerospace industry.
A Falcon for Falcon 1
In one big way, the program did succeed. As DARPA began to solicit bids from industry for the small rocket program in May 2003, it eventually received 24 responses. The military awarded nine grants worth about half a million dollars each for design studies. While some awards went to established companies, such as Lockheed Martin, the majority were given to smaller firms like SpaceX. Ultimately, SpaceX and AirLaunch, which aimed to drop its rocket from a C-17 aircraft, emerged as finalists. Only SpaceX ever made it to space, but the program had been canceled before that happened.
Although the vast majority of SpaceX’s early funds came from its founder, Elon Musk, the fact remains that DARPA supported it with some development funds and paid for the payload that went on the company’s first Falcon 1 launch. In this sense, DARPA was the first government entity to buy into the new company, and support its concept of cheap, rapid launch.
SpaceX would pivot away from the Falcon 1 rocket a few years later, leading to a new generation of small satellite launch companies such as Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit, Firefly, and Astra. Nearly two decades later, Us industry is close to reaching the goal of flexible and responsive launch, but it’s not quite there yet.
DARPA will continue to push for this capability. Although Master said no plans are final, the agency is looking to incorporate “responsive launch” into a future military exercise. What form this takes is not yet clear, but it may involve asking a launch company to put a satellite into orbit during an exercise that provides new data, and changes how the military uses space in a tactical way.