Astra CEO Chris Kemp told investors Thursday that the company will no longer launch payloads with its current light vehicle, the Rocket 3, and will instead shift all launches to a significantly larger rocket still under development.
It’s a big change for the company, which has operated on the hunch that customers are willing to risk a certain number of missile failures in favor of increased launch rate and lower cost. Kemp summed up TechCrunch’s outlook in May: “The expectation I think a lot of people have is that every release has to be perfect. I think what Astra needs to do, really, is we need to have so many launches that nobody thinks about it anymore.”
But it seems that people – including Astra itself – do think so. This is especially true after the failed launch of Astra’s TROPICS 1 mission in June, the first of three launches the company has conducted on behalf of NASA. This launch, which was highly anticipated by the company and Kemp in particular, resulted in a loss of payload after the upper stage experienced an anomaly that caused it to shut down before reaching target speed.
By May of this year, Kemp told investors that “If two out of three [TROPICS launches] are successful, not a mission failure. It’s just a lower refresh rate for the constellation.”
But the move from Rocket 3 to the larger vehicle, Rocket 4, marks a major shift in strategy that suggests a larger shift in coordination. The payload difference alone is seismic: Astra said it increased the Rocket 4’s payload capacity from 300kg – already a huge change from the Rocket 3’s 50kg – to 600kg.
Kemp explained the shift to investors as a shift based on customer preferences and market developments. “We started talking to our customers and it was pretty clear that after two of the four flights we had were not successful, the opportunity to fly a vehicle that has received all this attention and energy from our team in the past year it was also favorable for them,” he said. He added that the company has seen increasing demand from large constellation operators for greater payload capacity and greater reliability.
That means, specifically, no more flights in 2022. Astra is considering several test flights of the Rocket 4 and Launch System 2.0, of which the Rocket 4 is a part, but Kemp did not provide a specific timeline for when those tests would take place. flights may 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 space products division, specifically the Astra spacecraft engine. The company has secured 103 firm orders for this engine, which were based on Astra’s acquisition of the Apollo Fusion last year, and the company will open a 60,000 square foot manufacturing facility to support the manufacturing of this product. The company expects the sale of spacecraft engines to make up most of its revenue.
The change in strategy comes after an announcement that Astra has secured $100 million in committed equity capital with B. Riley Principal Capital II over the next two years. This is in addition to the $200 million cash corridor the company currently has.