Rocket builder Astra will try again for its first orbital rocket launch in July, as the San Francisco-area startup navigates the coronavirus pandemic environment while trying to begin flying satellites to space regularly.
The company suffered a setback in March when a fire broke out as Astra was getting its Rocket 3.0 ready on the launchpad. But the company diagnosed that issue and will ship a new rocket up to Alaska at the end of this month, for a launch window that opens on July 20. Astra is aiming for orbit with this launch, although CEO Chris Kemp explained to CNBC on Monday that he defines success as a stable flight for the first part of the launch.
“Our strategy here is to see the first stage perform, and then we have two more flights,” Kemp said. “We still intend to iterate towards orbit.”
His company’s rocket stands about 40 feet tall and falls in the category of small launch vehicles. These small rockets have become more popular due to an increase in the number of small satellites and spacecraft, often the size of a mailbox or washing machine, looking for rides to orbit. Currently the small rocket business is dominated by Rocket Lab, which has launched 12 missions to orbit successfully.
Astra has raised about $100 million to date, from investors including Advance (the investment arm of the family of the late billionaire S.I. Newhouse), ACME Capital, Airbus Ventures, Canaan Partners and Salesforce founder Marc Benioff. Astra’s board includes Advance senior executive Nomi Bergman and ACME Capital partner Scott Stanford.
While Astra has enough cash on hand to get to early 2021, Kemp said that he’s “going to be restarting that fundraising process” in the next month. Astra previously planned to raise new capital in the second quarter but that changed when the pandemic hit.
“That is a function of the market recovering, at least for now,” Kemp said. “I think our calculus has now shifted a little bit, because there’s been a lot of inbound interest about investing in the company right now.”
Astra trimmed its staff through a mix of furloughs and layoffs when the coronavirus pandemic began, but Kemp said that the company’s been able to bring back 10 of those who were furloughed. The company now has a total of 119 employees, including eight who remain furloughed.
“We brought those folks back because they accelerated our ability to deliver another launch in July,” Kemp said.
Next week Astra plans to do a test of its Rocket 3.1 at the company’s headquarters in Alameda, California. Known as a “hot fire,” Kemp said the test will see Astra fire up the rocket’s engines for 10 seconds.
“Then we pack it up and ship it up to Alaska,” Kemp said.