Astra CEO Chris Kemp told investors Thursday that the company will no longer be launching payloads with its current lightweight vehicle, the Rocket 3, and will instead demonstrate all launches on a much larger rocket still in development.
It’s a big change for the company, which has acted on the hunch that customers are willing to risk a certain number of missile failures in favor of increasing the launch cadence and lowering costs. Kemp summed up a TechCrunch perspective back in May: “I think a lot of people’s expectation is that every launch has to be perfect. I think what the Astra has to do, really, is have a lot of launches that no one thinks about anymore. “.
But it seems that people – including the Astra itself – are already thinking about it. This is especially true after the failed launch of Astra’s TROPICS 1 mission in June, the first of three the company has conducted on behalf of NASA. That launch, much anticipated by the company and especially the Kemp, ended up losing payload after the upper stage experienced an anomaly that caused it to shut down before it reached its target velocity.
In late May this year, Kemp told investors that “if two of the three [TROPICS launches] Successful, it’s not mission failure. It’s just a lower refresh rate for the star cluster.”
But the switch from Rocket 3 to the bigger car, Rocket 4, represents a major change in strategy that signals an even bigger change in harmony. The payload difference alone is seismic: Astra said it’s increasing the Rocket 4’s payload capacity from 300 kilograms — an already big change from the Rocket 3’s 50 kilograms — to 600 kilograms.
Kemp explained that switching to investors depends on customer preferences and market evolution. “We started talking to our customers and it was pretty clear that after two out of the four flights we took that didn’t work out, the opportunity to fly a vehicle that has received all this attention and energy from our team over the past year has also been favorable to them,” he said. He added that the company has seen a growing demand from operators of large constellations for higher payload capacity and greater reliability.
What that means, concretely, is that there will be no more flights in 2022. Astra is looking at conducting several test flights for the Rocket 4 and Launch System 2.0, of which Rocket 4 is a part, but Kemp has not provided any timetable Specific about when the test flights might take place, saying only that the start of commercial operations by next year will depend on the success of those flights.
In addition to these changes, Astra also reported growth in its aerospace products division, specific to the Astra spacecraft engine. The company has 103 binding orders for this engine, building on Astra’s acquisition of Apollo Fusion last year, and the company will open a 60,000-square-foot production facility to support manufacturing of this product. The company expects to sell spacecraft engines to make up the bulk of its revenue.
The change in strategy follows the announcement that Astra will secure a $100 million committed equity facility with B. Riley Principal Capital II over the next two years. This is in addition to a $200 million cash runway that the company currently owns.