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At Astra, failure is an option


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At Astra, failure is an option

“We would go to parties where there would be things like ice sculptures of the ATK logo."

ALAMEDA, Calif.—Toward the end of an interview on Tuesday morning, Adam London finally came out and admitted it. “Honestly, we’re building a pretty boring rocket.”

 

This is by design, of course. His company Astra, which just emerged from stealth mode this week, does not want to build the sleekest or most modern of rockets. Rather, says London (the company’s co-founder and chief technology officer), Astra seeks to deliver the most bang for the buck to customers. To that end, Astra has developed a no-frills launch system. Even the company’s name for its newest rocket, "Rocket 3.0," lacks pizzazz.

 

“This is not about making the best, most sexy rocket,” London said in a small conference room at the company’s headquarters in Alameda, California. “We want to make the simplest, most manufacturable rocket.”

 

Over the last five years, dozens of startups have emerged in the United States and around the world with flashy plans to build low-cost rockets to meet this rising demand for small satellite launch. Some are more credible and well-funded than others. But among that crowd, Astra currently stands out for several reasons: They are moving fast, aim to be insanely cheap, and are rigorously following an iterative design process. Perhaps most importantly, they’re willing to fail.

 

When London and co-founder Chris Kemp started Astra in late 2016, the pair imagined two fundamental pathways to get stuff into low-Earth orbit cheaply. SpaceX has already very nearly perfected one of them by building the capable Falcon 9 rocket, which is highly reliable, brawny, and increasingly reusable.”It is an incredible engineering achievement,” London said of SpaceX’s workhorse rocket. “I remain in awe of what they have done.” For highly valuable large satellites and astronaut launches, the Falcon 9 provides an optimal solution.

 

But the Astra team believes there is another path, too. Over the last decade, a slew of new space startups and traditional players have begun to build smaller satellites, and these companies are looking for ever-cheaper rides into space and specific orbits. These 50 to 150-kg satellites are, London says, almost disposable. Most lack extensive propulsion systems, and therefore they'll only have a design lifetime of a few years before they get dragged back into Earth’s atmosphere. Astra has crafted what it sees as a solution for this, a rocket neither exquisite nor perfect. “We’re actually not shooting for 100 percent reliability,” London said. Instead, Astra is willing to trade a small amount of reliability for a big cost savings.

 

And it’s betting customers will as well.

Fast

London and Kemp met about five years ago, following an introduction by Robbie Schingler, co-founder of the satellite company Planet. As a former Chief Technology Officer at NASA, entrepreneur, and gifted fundraiser, Kemp was taken by London’s engineering work designing very small rockets. Under one grant from the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), London had designed a rocket to launch a single 3U CubeSat, weighing less than 5kg, into orbit. The rocket, which never launched, had a diameter of less than half a meter.

 

The more London and Kemp talked, the more they liked the idea of building a rocket using some of the technologies that London had honed over a decade at his small start-up, Ventions. These included an electric pump to pressurize rocket fuel before it enters the engine chamber, a lower-weight alternative to a turbopump. When the pair founded Astra in October 2016, London brought over about 10 employees from Ventions and some preliminary rocket engine concepts.

 

From there, Astra moved quickly, designing the first version of its booster, called Rocket 1.0, throughout 2017. At the same time, the team modified a test site literally next door at the former Alameda Naval Air Station, which had two large tunnels for jet engine testing. Here, throughout that first full year, they would perform hundreds of first-stage engine tests indoors.

By the spring of 2018, the company was ready to launch its first rocket, which included five first-stage engines and a chunk of metal for the second stage. This rocket was never designed to reach orbit from its launch site at the Pacific Spaceport Complex in southern Alaska, on Kodiak Island. In fact, due to some components used, the first stage engines were only capable of firing for about 60 seconds. Kemp said this first flight's primary goal was to not hurt anyone and, secondarily, to hopefully not destroy the launch site. The rocket ended up launching and performing reasonably well for its minute-long mission.

 

This experience gave the team confidence to refine its design for Rocket 2.0, which was developed during the summer of 2018 and launched in November of that year. This rocket had more components of a second stage, but it still lacked an engine, so it also could not put a payload into orbit. However, Astra hoped the rocket’s first stage would fire long enough for the rocket to breach the Kármán line, the internationally designated boundary of space 100km above the Earth’s surface. Disappointingly, due to an issue with a “speed controller,” the rocket did not make it that far, terminating flight early. Even so, Kemp said the mission met about 75 percent of its overall objectives.

 

Astra, which now has 170 employees, spent the entirety of 2019 designing and building Rocket 3.0. Kemp and London do intend for this version to reach orbit, and they have made significant changes to the overall design accordingly. Notably, London doubled the performance of the first stage engine, named Delphin after a Greek sea God, from 3,000 pounds of thrust at sea level to 6,000 pounds. (The upper stage engine is named Aether, after the pure “upper sky” air breathed by Greek gods.) Engineers also overhauled the avionics, switched to a “common dome” design between the liquid oxygen and kerosene propellant tanks, and more.

 

If all goes well, the first Rocket 3.0 will launch within “single digit weeks” from Alaska. The actual date will be determined by DARPA as part of its Launch Challenge to support rapid, reliable launch capabilities. Of the 18 teams that originally entered the contest—including a major industry player Virgin Orbit and a now-bankrupt Vector—only Astra still has a chance to win the $12 million prize. Kemp said the first Rocket 3.0 has already completed a static fire test at a site south of Sacramento, the former Castle Air Force Base, but the rocket has not yet been shipped to Alaska. (The company plans to launch polar missions from Alaska. It also will likely lease a site in the Kwajalein Atoll from the US Army for equatorial and mid-latitude inclinations).

 

If Astra makes it to orbit this year, it would do so remarkably fast for a private company developing a new, liquid-fueled rocket. SpaceX holds the current record, taking six years and four months from its founding to reaching orbit with its Falcon 1 rocket. Rocket Lab, the other startup with an orbital rocket, required more than 11 years. Other companies that may make orbital launch attempts this year include Virgin Orbit (founded December 2012) and Firefly (January 2014). Launching successfully any time before October would mean that Astra reached space in less than four years.

Cheap

Almost every decision Astra makes comes down to cost, with the goal of offering customers the lowest price per kilogram to orbit. The smallsat launch industry leader, Rocket Lab, offers a capacity of about 225 kg to low-Earth orbit for $7.5 million. Astra is currently offering rides to space with about half that capacity for $2.5 million per launch. Eventually, however, Kemp wants to drive costs down to $1 million per launch. Such a price would put Astra's dedicated-mission offering on par with the cost of rideshare missions aboard the Falcon 9 rocket.

 

During a tour of the company’s sprawling factory, which will eventually encompass 250,000 square feet, Kemp held up a small piece of machined aluminum a little larger than an Apple watch. “This cost us $5 to make,” he said. Had the company tried to buy a similar part from an aerospace supplier, he said, it would have cost hundreds of dollars. “Part of our secret is that everything is vertically integrated,” Kemp said, pointing out rolls of steel and sheets of aluminum stacked on the factory's gray, epoxy-coated floors. “We try to make everything.”

Astra is not the first rocket company to aggressively bring manufacturing in-house. From the beginning, Elon Musk saw the value of vertical integration at SpaceX, avoiding high cost aerospace suppliers that moved too slowly for his purposes wherever possible. Early on, he hired a machinist named Bob Reagan to bring his shop into the company’s factory in El Segundo, California. This helped SpaceX reduce costs and speed up development for the Falcon 1 and future rockets. Even so, SpaceX had to buy propellant tanks and other key parts for its Falcon 1 rocket from suppliers.

 

During the tour, Kemp dismissed the value of 3D printing aerospace parts, which has become all the rage in rocket development. Some companies, such as Relativity Space, aspire to print the entirety of their rockets through additive manufacturing. Not Astra, which doesn’t even own a 3D printer. "We just completely disagree with their thesis," Kemp said of Relativity. For Rocket 3.0, only the impellers for its pumps and rocket engine chambers are additively manufactured. “3D printing is the slowest and most expensive way to make almost anything,” Kemp added.

 

Astra has also opted for low-cost materials. The payload fairing for Rocket 1.0, the protective shroud that covers a satellite during the launch into space, was made from lightweight carbon fiber. Even after Astra’s engineers bled every possible cost from the manufacturing process, they determined it would still require $250,000 to make a carbon fiber fairing because of expensive tooling, materials, curing, and inability to automate the process. Kemp wanted to build the entire rocket for that. So Astra switched to aluminum, and the company is now making fairings for Rocket 3.0 at a cost of $2,500. That kind of price difference is worth a 20 percent increase in the fairing’s mass, Kemp said.

 

A final way the company hopes to slash costs is through scaling operations. For example, making one valve might cost $3,000 in parts and labor. But manufacturing 100 of the valves might bring an economy of scale to drop the costs to $300 per unit. Thus the company’s goal of $1 million per launch is contingent on reaching such a scale with dozens, if not 100 or more, launches per year.

 

“The theme that really makes this company stand out, which will capture the imagination of our customers, our investors, and our employees, is the idea that every day we will produce and launch a rocket,” Kemp said.

 

That’s the ultimate goal. And it’s a radical one.

Iterative

A decade ago, Kemp held a job where he was responsible for all things computing at NASA. As part of this, he remembers taking technology luminaries, such as then-Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt, to see space shuttle launches at Kennedy Space Center.

 

“We would go to parties where there would be things like ice sculptures of the ATK logo,” Kemp said, referencing one of the space shuttle’s prime contractors. “I was blown away by the ridiculousness of it. These launches were spectacles. As Adam and I reflected on what could we do differently in space with Astra, it needed to be the opposite of that.”

 

This led Kemp and London to the ideas of the cheapest possible launch and reaching that through scale. But they also understood their company could not simply push a button to go from one launch a year to 100. They would have to take the development process step by step, learning along the way. “The very fabric of the company had to start with iteration,” Kemp said.

Iterative design is quite different than more traditional, linear design, the process by which most rockets used to be designed. Engineers would spend years doing preliminary and final designs of a rocket before technicians cut metal to build a booster. This linear process costs more, takes longer, and may not catch design flaws until later in the process. However, the benefit of linear design is that rockets usually have a smoother test process, with fewer explosions.

 

By contrast, iterative design is messy. Companies and their investors have to be willing to accept failures, learn from them, and innovate quickly. SpaceX was one of the companies that pioneered iterative design for rockets—it is perhaps no surprise that Astra’s head of engineering is Chris Thompson, one of SpaceX’s three co-founders. (He left SpaceX in 2012.) At Astra, each new version of its rocket is optimized both for performance, as well as manufacturability. For example, with Rocket 3.0, the rivets in the payload fairing were installed by a technician. For 4.0, the company hopes to automate the process, saving money and time.

 

One reason Astra remained in “stealth mode” until this week, Kemp said, is that the company did not want to have to explain why the design of its rockets kept changing due to this iterative method. Also, he said, Astra did not need publicity to raise funds or find customers. Since its founding, Kemp has raised more than $100 million, with more on the way, and has a “very healthy manifest” of customers who have signed launch contracts. Until Astra was actually ready to launch an orbital rocket, Kemp said, it didn’t really make sense to talk publicly about what the company was doing. It didn’t even have a website until this week.

 

“Space is hard,” Kemp said. “Projecting schedules is nearly impossible. It’s really easy to set expectations that are hard to meet, and it’s distracting to the team. So we’ve been focused on doing things, instead of talking about doing things.”

Willing to fail

Astra is building five copies of its Rocket 3.0. The first three are called “One of Three,” “Two of Three,” and “Three of Three.” The plan is to launch the first rocket and see how it goes. If there are problems, which Kemp and London expect will happen, the company's engineers will identify the cause and update the second rocket accordingly. They figure it will probably take three attempts to reach orbit this year.

 

And what of the other two copies of Rocket 3.0? In response to this question, Kemp laughs. “Four of Three and Five of three are, in fact, in our back pocket in case we need them,” he said.

 

After this development campaign, the company plans to iterate further to get to Rocket 4.0 before the end of this year. It intends to build about 25 of these rockets to begin commercial operations. After that will come Rocket 5.0, with a manufacturing run of about 100 total boosters and potentially lower cost and higher performance. Kemp says the current facility in Alameda, which has room for additional expansion, presently can manufacture about two rockets per month.

 

Through Rocket 3.0 and Rocket 4.0, Astra hopes to continue learning about its vehicle and improving its reliability. Asked what he would consider a good success rate for Rocket 5.0, London said he is shooting for 95 out of 100. Compared to historical rockets, that rate is about average. But for larger, modern rockets such as United Launch Alliance's Atlas V or the Falcon 9, such a rate would be considered quite poor.

 

But from an economic standpoint, London says a more risk-tolerant approach makes sense. Assume that a remote sensing company wants to launch a constellation of 20 more or less identical satellites, he explained. The incremental cost of launching an additional satellite would be five percent more.

 

“Targeting a high reliability number is really hard and expensive,” London said. Improving a rocket's success rate involves more testing, analysis, and redundancy in design. “The things that I can not do to accept a 95 percent reliability, as opposed to 100 percent reliability, saves way more than five percent in costs. So it’s a no-brainer from an economics perspective that for these kinds of payloads you should not be targeting 100 percent reliability.”

 

At a time when pretty much every other rocket company tests, simulates, and tests some more to reach perfection on the launch pad, this quick-and-dirty approach stands out. Soon, we may discover if it stands the test of time, too.

 

 

Source: At Astra, failure is an option (Ars Technica)  

 

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