Astra Space cancelled its first-ever rocket launch just 53 seconds before liftoff March 2, disqualifying it from winning a $2 million cash prize through the DARPA Launch Challenge.
The company was the sole competitor remaining in the DARPA Launch Challenge, a competition established in 2018 to find companies capable of providing rapid access to space, potentially offering launch services within days of a request. The challenge required companies to launch a rocket into space on short notice, without early knowledge of the payload or destination orbit. If they succeeded, they would then be asked to repeat the process with a second rocket just days later at another location.
“We set a really, really aggressive, but achievable set of goals that we were looking for our competitors to achieve. We actually came very close to getting there,” said DARPA Launch Challenge Program Manager Todd Master in a conference call with media.
Astra Space was given details of the launch location and requirements about 30 days ago, with a March 1 deadline to launch their rocket into orbit from Kodiak, Alaska. After previous launches were scrubbed due to weather conditions, the company scheduled a final launch attempt for March 2, with DARPA extending the window by one day.
But despite favorable weather conditions and the start of a 15-minute countdown to launch, Astra Space halted the launch with just 53 seconds to lift off.
“As we neared the end of the count [...] we saw some data from a sensor that really concerned us and we huddled up as a team and really just made the call that as wonderful as it would have been to [win the prize money], we wanted to try to get to orbit in these three launches and if that data were real, it could have caused a problem with the flight,” said Astra Space CEO Chris Kemp about the decision to cancel the launch.
The company said that it would likely take a week or more to sort out the issue with the sensor before moving forward with a launch as soon as possible.
According to Kemp, the company knew completing the challenge would be a long shot. Their first rocket was even named “One of Three” because they expected it would likely take three rocket launches to successfully place a payload on orbit.
There were originally around 50 applicants competing for the challenge when it was announced in 2018, but by March 2019 only three remained: Vector Launch; Virgin Orbit, and a third, unnamed competitor. Formed in 2016, Astra Space spent the first few years of its existence in stealth mode, only recently revealing themselves and their participation in the challenge. Now public, Astra Space is offering dedicated launch services of 50kg-150kg payloads in 2020 and 2021 on its website, as well as cubesat delivery services.
The finalists were each given a $400,000 prize, with $2 million more promised following delivery of the first payload to orbit. A second launch would win them $10 million, $9 million or $8 million. While Vector Launch and Virgin Orbit dropped out before October, Astra Space pushed forward until the final day. Still, the company will now join its competitors in forgoing any more DARPA Launch Challenge prize money.
Though ultimately unsuccessful, Master said Astra Space’s efforts had proven their goals of being able to provide flexible launch services and while operating with limited infrastructure, noting that the company’s capabilities could be of service to the military.
“We’re in the very very early stages of discussion with our partners in the Department of Defense, probably most directly U.S. Space Force and U.S. Space Command, as to how we can integrate responsive launch capability directly into a military exercise,” said Master. “So could we take a major military exercise and in the course of that exercise actually demonstrate the ability to put something on orbit in true rapid fashion where war fighters are really waiting for it, to show that you could deliver new data that didn’t previously exist prior to that exercise starting and sort of change their perspective on how they use space in a way that’s more tactical.”
Nathan Strout was the staff editor at C4ISRNET, where he covered the intelligence community.