After months of technical and weather delays, Astra launched its first orbital rocket on Friday night from a spaceport in southern Alaska.
The small, squat rocket’s five main engines fired up several seconds before takeoff, and then the booster called Rocket 3.1 began to soar into the deeper and deeper evening sky. The 3.1 rocket seemed to soar straight and true for about 15 seconds before starting to swing back and forth a bit.
Later, the company’s co-founder and chief technology officer, Adam London, explained that a problem with the rocket’s computer guidance system introduced a slight roll oscillation. When this happened, the vehicle began to stray from its planned trajectory.
At that point, it looked like the guidance system might be able to dampen the roll, but the rocket was coming dangerously close to passing outside its controlled flight area. To prevent the rocket from falling into a protected area, the engines were therefore ordered to shut down. They had burned for about 30 seconds, or slightly less than a quarter of the expected first stage of combustion.
“Overall, we are quite happy with what we have learned,” London said on Saturday during a conference call with reporters.
Based on a preliminary review of the data, Astra officials said they believe the problem occurred due to a flight software problem, rather than a problem with the rocket’s first stage hardware. The engineers at the California-based company intend to conduct a “thorough” investigation to ensure they understand the root cause of the failure.
Prior to launch, Astra was pretty clear that it did not expect this mission, which carried no payload, to reach orbit. The company’s philosophy is that the best way to develop a rocket quickly and inexpensively is to test its booster in flight. The airline plans to reach orbit on the third of three test flights, and its CEO, Chris Kemp, said Friday night’s launch attempt keeps Astra on that path.
“This rocket is a completely new system, none of this has ever flown before,” Kemp said. “There is hardly a single part of this rocket that has ever flown. This is a fantastic result.”
Founded in October 2016, Astra has limited its spending to date to around $ 100 million, in part by keeping its number of employees at just over 100 people. Kemp said the company anticipated bankruptcy because the best way to get data on the rocket’s performance is not to run endless simulations on the ground – the company’s testing of its guidance and navigation system missed the roll problem – but rather to test hardware in flight.
“For us, what’s expensive is not learning,” he said. “Tthis is one of the things that is very difficult to test on the ground “.
Armed with additional data, the Astra team will now prepare Rocket 3.2 for a flight test. This booster is already being assembled at the company’s plant in Alameda, California. The first stage for Rocket 3.2 is similar to its predecessor, but the company has updated its second stage to give it a better chance of reaching orbit. This flight could happen “very soon,” Kemp said.
John Kraus listing image for Astra