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Rocket startup Astra's stock tanks after botched weekend test flight

Rocket startup Astra's stock tanks after botched weekend test flight

Posted: Aug 30, 2021 6:00 PM
Updated: Aug 30, 2021 6:00 PM

Astra — a startup that's developing small, cheap rockets to deliver batches of satellites to space — attempted to put one of its 40-foot-tall rockets into orbit on Saturday, but the rocket failed during the launch.

Rather than climbing skyward, the 43-foot-tall rocket hovered sideways off its launch pad before attempting to right itself, at which point it climbed about 30 miles into the air only to cut its engine power and plunge back into the ocean.

The botched flight attempt, the third for Astra's automated rocket, sent the company's stock price tumbling down nearly 20% during trading hours Monday. No people or satellites were harmed, as the rocket was loaded only with a dummy payload, which was paid for by the US government and meant to simulate the weight of a real satellite.

Astra is among a long list of commercial rocket companies pushing to make space a place of competitive business rather than the sole domain of governments. But whether or not a startup can successfully put rockets into orbit, as companies such as SpaceX, Rocket Lab and Virgin Orbit have been able to do, has often been a determining factor in whether a company can stay financially afloat.

Astra went public earlier this year, despite never having successfully launched a rocket, through a reverse merger that allowed the company to make its stock market debut while skipping much of the financial disclosures required of more traditional IPOs. The Monday-morning stock dip wiped out all of its gains for the year.

This weekend's launch attempt came eight months after Astra's Rocket 3.2 failed to drum up enough speed to enter a stable orbit, though the company insisted that the flight proved that its rocket design has "orbital capability." Before that, Astra's first launch attempt was thwarted by issues with the rocket's guidance system.

Saturday's launch appeared to go off the rails from the start. The rocket burned through precious fuel as it made its first moves sideways, rather than upward.

"One of the five main engines shut down less than one second after liftoff, causing the vehicle to slowly lift off the pad before resuming its trajectory," the company said in a press release. After about two and a half minutes, flight controllers then ordered "an all engine-shutdown command, ending the flight."

Astra CEO Chris Kemp remained optimistic in a tweet. "Reviewing flight data and video, two things are very clear," he tweeted Saturday. "1) An engine shut down right after launch 2) Everything that happened next made me incredibly proud of our team. Space may be hard, but like this rocket, we are not giving up."

Astra said in a press release that it opened a "mishap investigation" into the flight and is working with federal regulators.

It's not uncommon for a rocket company to burn through a few failed attempts before putting a rocket in space. Elon Musk's SpaceX, the most prominent among this new generation of launch companies, had three failed attempts before finally putting one of its Falcon 1 rockets into orbit in 2008. Richard Branson-backed startup Virgin Orbit, which is a direct competitor of Astra in the small-launch-vehicle sector, had one failure in 2020 before its first successful orbital launch earlier this year. Rocket Lab, also a direct Astra competitor, also had one failure before its first success, and it endured two additional mishaps out of its 20 previous launches.

What's crucial for a rocket company's survival, however, is to notch a successful demonstration flight before running out of money. Failed attempts or sluggish development programs have been the death knell for rocket companies of years past, such as Vector or Beal Aerospace.

Astra's stock market debut came with an influx of private investments, led by financial behemoth BlackRock, totaling $464 million. That left the company with roughly that amount of cash as of its latest financial filing, posted earlier this month. The company did, however, rack up a roughly $30 million net loss last quarter.

How Astra stacks up in the launch industry

SpaceX's Falcon rockets — which are used to haul large satellites, batches of satellites or NASA astronauts into orbit — stand at more than 200 feet tall, or roughly the height of four of Astra's rockets stacked on top of each other. The idea behind companies such as Astra is to create smaller rockets that haul less mass into space, but can be built quickly and cheaply and launched agilely.

Astra is one of dozens of companies that plan to use lightweight rockets to make frequent trips to space to drop off satellites.

When asked in a company Q&A posted online how Astra plans to stand out in such a crowded industry, Adam London, Astra's founder and chief technology officer, said: "Rockets are typically artisanal, crafted objects. You make one at a time, and they're very complicated. But when you really get into it, they don't need to be that complicated, particularly when you're not flying people or critical national assets, and they don't absolutely, positively have to work 100% of the time."

In other words, Astra plans to mass produce rockets to make them cheaper, and it doesn't put too much emphasis on having a pristine success rate.

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Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

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Cases: 497790

Reported Deaths: 9917
CountyCasesDeaths
Harrison34102530
DeSoto31839398
Hinds31837622
Jackson24314377
Rankin21881388
Lee15427234
Madison14525279
Jones13772241
Forrest13412250
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Lowndes10934185
Lamar10470135
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Hancock7697126
Washington7365156
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Monroe6727174
Warren6642176
Pontotoc6609101
Neshoba6606205
Panola6460131
Marshall6386132
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Union596094
Pike5784152
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George491879
Scott470998
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Itawamba4596104
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Tate4546109
Copiah445191
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Clarke290694
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Holmes266987
Smith262550
Yalobusha232647
Tallahatchie225251
Walthall217763
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Lawrence211140
Perry204755
Amite203954
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Jefferson Davis170642
Carroll167438
Tunica158639
Benton147438
Kemper141241
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Claiborne131237
Humphreys129038
Franklin119128
Quitman106227
Wilkinson104539
Jefferson94234
Sharkey64020
Issaquena1937
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Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 813481

Reported Deaths: 15179
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson1139971910
Mobile722271323
Madison51970686
Shelby37279341
Baldwin37069540
Tuscaloosa34934599
Montgomery33953725
Lee23142240
Calhoun22142470
Morgan20639372
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Elmore15075284
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Walker11085366
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Chilton6587160
Russell625958
Franklin5930105
Chambers5559142
Marion4955126
Dallas4882199
Clarke472782
Pike4719105
Geneva4564126
Winston4473101
Lawrence4264117
Bibb421686
Barbour355475
Marengo334089
Monroe330262
Randolph327063
Butler324794
Pickens313882
Henry310965
Hale309187
Cherokee299957
Fayette290679
Washington250951
Cleburne246958
Crenshaw243575
Clay240367
Macon230562
Lamar215846
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A cold front passing through our area overnight will bring into our area some of the coolest temperatures of the season so far. We will see most of the highs this weekend only in the upper 60s to lower 70s. While overnight lows will drop off down into the 40s Saturday night.
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