astra CEO Chris Kemp told investors Thursday that the company will no longer launch payloads with its current lightweight vehicle, Rocket 3, and will instead re-manifest all launches on a significantly larger rocket still in development.
It’s a big change for the company, which operates on the premise that customers are willing to risk a certain number of missile failures in favor of higher launch frequency and lower costs. Kemp summed up the perspective for londonbusinessblog.com in May: “I think a lot of people have an expectation that every launch has to be perfect. I think what Astra should really do is we need to have so many launches that nobody thinks about it anymore.”
But it seems that people – including Astra itself – are indeed thinking about it. This is particularly true after the failure of the launch of Astra’s TROPICS 1 mission in June, the first in a trio of launches the company conducted on behalf of NASA. That launch, much anticipated by the company and Kemp in particular, ended in loss of payload after the top stage experienced an anomaly causing it to shut down before reaching target speed.
As late as May of this year, Kemp told investors that “If two out of three, [TROPICS launches] be successful, it is not a failed mission. It’s just a lower refresh rate for the constellation.”
But the move from Rocket 3 to the larger vehicle, Rocket 4, marks a major change in strategy that signals a greater change in tone. The payload difference alone is seismic: Astra said it increased Rocket 4’s payload from 300 kilograms – already a huge change from Rocket 3’s 50 kilograms – to 600 kilograms.
Kemp explained the shift to investors as one based on customer preference and market evolution. “We started talking to our customers and it was pretty clear that after two of the four flights we had flown were unsuccessful, the opportunity to fly on a vehicle that has had all this attention and energy from our team in the past year was also beneficial for them,” he said. He added that the company has seen increasing demand from large constellation operators for increased payload and reliability.
What that means in concrete terms is that there will be no more flights in 2022. Astra is considering conducting several test flights of Rocket 4 and Launch System 2.0, which Rocket 4 is part of, but Kemp did not provide a concrete timeline on when those test flights could take place, saying only that commercial operations could begin by next year. will depend on the success of those flights.
In addition to these changes, Astra also reported growth in its space products division, most notably the Astra spacecraft engine. The company has secured 103 committed orders for that engine, built on Astra’s acquisition of Apollo Fusion last year, and the company will open a 60,000-square-foot manufacturing facility to support production of that product. The company anticipates selling spacecraft engines to cover most of its revenue.
The change in strategy follows the announcement that Astra has acquired a $100 million committed capital facility with B. Riley Principal Capital II over the next two years. That’s in addition to a $200 million runway the company currently has on hand.