July 21, 2024
Exclusive: Footage from 2020 shows Astra rocket exploding during prelaunch testing

Footage obtained by TechCrunch shows the catastrophic ending that Astra’s Rocket 3.0 suffered during prelaunch testing in March 2020.

The explosion, which occurred at Alaska’s Pacific Spaceport Complex, was simply reported as an “anomaly” at the time, an industry term for pretty much any issue that deviates from the expected outcome.

“I can confirm we had an anomaly on the launch pad,” Alaska Aerospace CEO Mark Lester told local reporters at the time. “We are executing our emergency checklist. We request everyone stay clear of the area to allow our crew to address the situation.”

Meanwhile, Astra CEO Chris Kemp told TechCrunch at the time that the rocket “suffered an anomaly following an otherwise successful day of testing in Kodiak in preparation for a launch this week.” He added that the company’s hardware “was the only thing harmed.” He told a separate publication that the company would not be attempting a launch after that week, and that it would “wait until conditions with coronavirus improve before making another attempt” — when in actuality, there was no longer a rocket to launch.

The video clip shows the micro launcher burst into flames. It’s clear the vehicle did not survive. It would have been Astra’s third orbital launch attempt.

At the time, Astra was taking such failures in stride. When the company emerged from stealth earlier that year, it did so with a conviction that it could build rockets at such a high volume, and at such a low price, that some amount of failure could be priced in: 100% reliability was not the end goal. That’s how Kemp summed it up in a May 2022 interview: “The expectation I think that a lot of people have is every launch has to be perfect,” he said. “I think what Astra has to do, really, is we have to have so many launches nobody thinks about it anymore.”

Astra went on to reach orbit for the first time in November 2021, and a second time in March 2022.

Astra had been one of the biggest success stories for space industry investors, with the startup going public in July 2021 at a $2.1 billion valuation after raising nearly $500 million for its ultra-low-cost launch plans. But those plans failed to materialize, and after months of burning cash, Astra’s board quietly accepted a take-private deal from Kemp and CTO Adam London at a stock price of just $0.50 per share. The deal is expected to close sometime this quarter, at which time Astra will cease trading on the Nasdaq.

Astra did not return a request for comment on the 2020 launch failure.

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