On Thursday, February 10th, Astra Space’s Rocket 3.3 launch vehicle took off from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station (CCSFS) Launch Complex 46 (LC-46).
Unfortunately, while liftoff and booster ascent appeared to be more or less perfect, Rocket 3’s payload fairing failed to separate, triggering a series of events that caused its upper stage to enter an uncontrolled and unrecoverable spin after burning for just a few seconds. Astra was unable to salvage the spinning rocket, resulting in a mission failure well short of orbit.
“Unfortunately we heard that an issue has been experienced during flight that prevented the delivery of our customer payloads to orbit today. We are deeply sorry to our customers NASA, University of Alabama, the University of Mexico and the University of California Berkeley,” said Astra Space Director of Product Management Carolina Grossman. “More information will be provided as we complete the data review.”
Today’s launch comes after two previous aborted launch attempts. The first attempt on February 5th was delayed due to a CCSFS radar system malfunction. The second launch delay came on February 7th, after the rocket aborted briefly after ignition because of a minor telemetry issue.
NASA’s first mission under the agency’s Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS) Demonstration 2 contract hoped to launch four CubeSats to space as early as February 5th, 2022. The satellites, which made up the agency’s 41st Educational Launch of Nano-satellites (ELaNa) mission, were the first VCLS payloads launched – albeit unsuccessfully – from Cape Canaveral’s LC-46 pad, which last supported NASA’s Orion spacecraft Ascent Abort 2 (AA-2) test flight in July 2019.
The satellites onboard the flight were developed by three universities and one NASA center:
- BAMA 1 (University of Alabama, Tusscolusa)
- INCA (New Mexico State University, Las Cruces)
- QubeSat (University of California, Berkeley)
- R5-S1 (NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Houston)
The ELaNa 41 mission CubeSats were selected through NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI) and were assigned to the mission by NASA’s Launch Services Program based at Kennedy. CSLI provides launch opportunities for small satellite payloads built by universities, high schools, NASA Centers, and non-profit organizations.
Founded in 2016, Astra Space is an American launch vehicle company based in Alameda, California. Astra’s official vision “is to Improve Life on Earth from Space by creating a healthier and more connected planet.” The company hopes to secure a large portion of the small satellite launch market, stating that it “offers the lowest cost-per-launch dedicated orbital launch service of any operational launch provider in the world.”
As of November 2021, Astra charges around $2.5-3.5M for a dedicated Rocket 3 launch, which can deliver up to 150 kg (330 lb) to low Earth orbit (LEO). In comparison, for a dedicated Electron launch, Rocket Lab charges about $7.5M for 300 kg (660 lb) to LEO. For customers willing to accept a one-size-fits-all rideshare solution, SpaceX charges $1M for 200 kg (440 lb) to LEO or higher sun-synchronous orbits (SSOs).
While the aerospace company is based out of California, its frequent orbital and suborbital test flights have all been conducted at the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Kodiak, Alaska. Prior test flights used Rocket 1, Rocket 2, and Rocket 3 prototypes as Astra refined its design and embraced a hardware-rich development style that didn’t shy away from failure.
Rocket 3.3 reached orbit for the first time – carrying an instrumented boilerplate payload for the United States Space Force – on November 21st, 2021. Less than two months later, Rocket 3.3 (serial number LV08) attempted to carry several NASA-sponsored cubesats into orbit on February 10th, 2022 – also the rocket’s first East Coast launch. Like Rocket 3.3’s predecessors, the two-stage vehicle was fueled with liquid oxygen (LOx) and refined kerosene (RP-1). Powered by five Delphin engines, the first stage produces up to ~145 kilonewtons (32,500 lbf) of thrust at liftoff. The second stage is powered by one pressure-fed Aether engine that delivers about 3.3 kN (740 lbf) of thrust in the vacuum of space.
The unsuccessful launch attempt occurred just three months after Astra applied for their Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) launch license and less than one day after receiving that license.