Rocket Report: SpaceX sets new reuse record, Astra valued at $2.1 billion
February 5, 2021
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A streak of light arcs across the night sky and is reflected in a lake.
Enlarge / Eighteenth SpaceX Starlink mission streaks to orbit from the Space Coast of Florida on Thursday, February 4.

Welcome to Edition 3.32 of the Rocket Report! The Starship prototype SN9 gave us quite a week, what with the FAA drama surrounding its (eventually fiery) launch and hard landing, but let’s not forget the couple of small satellite-launch companies seeking public funding. With help from readers, we’re doing our best to stay on top of it all.

As always, we welcome reader submissions, and if you don’t want to miss an issue, please subscribe using the box below (the form will not appear on AMP-enabled versions of the site). Each report will include information on small-, medium-, and heavy-lift rockets as well as a quick look ahead at the next three launches on the calendar.

Astra to become a publicly traded company. After very nearly reaching orbit during its second launch attempt in December, Astra announced this week it would be joining a “special purpose acquisition company,” or SPAC, that valued the company at $2.1 billion. The public listing is expected to take place in late 2021 when Astra combines with Seattle-area investment company Holicity. The stock would trade as ASTR on Nasdaq.

Next stop, orbit? … The transaction is expected to raise about $500 million. “This takes us a step closer to our mission of improving life on Earth from space by fully funding our plan to provide daily access to low Earth orbit from anywhere on the planet,” said Chris Kemp, founder, chairman, and CEO of Astra. The company has not set a target for its next launch date. (submitted by NotYourUserName and Ken the Bin)

iSpace suffers failure with second orbital attempt. Launch of a Hyperbola-1 rocket by Chinese private firm iSpace ended in apparent failure shortly after liftoff from Jiuquan launch center Monday. The Hyperbola-1 four-stage solid rocket lifted off from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert at around 3:00am EST. No information was provided immediately after the attempt, SpaceNews reports.

So what went wrong? … Later images suggest the launch had not gone according to plan. A few hours later still, a terse Chinese state media report confirmed the failure, without providing details. The launch failure comes 18 months after iSpace became the first nominally private Chinese launch company to achieve orbit with the first Hyperbola-1 rocket. (submitted by Unrulycow, platykurtic, and Ken the Bin)

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Firefly revamps board of directors. As Firefly Aerospace nears the debut of its Alpha rocket, with a first launch attempt expected in mid-March from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, the company’s chief executive is looking to the future. “The company is at an inflection point now where we’ve been in this hardcore development mode for Alpha,” said Tom Markusic, chief executive of Firefly, in an interview with Ars. “Our goals going forward are to transition from a development company to an operating company.

Making customers comfortable … Firefly also announced on Wednesday morning that it has changed the composition of its board of directors, which now consists of Markusic, Deborah Lee James, and Robert Cardillo. James, who will serve as chair of the board, has had a long government career, including having served as secretary of the Air Force from 2013 through 2017. Cardillo served as the sixth director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency from 2014 until 2019. Among those no longer on the board is Firefly’s financial backer, Max Polyakov, who has dual Ukrainian-British citizenship and lives in Edinburgh. He remains the largest shareholder.

Alpha launch will carry a debris experiment. Speaking of that Alpha launch, this week Purdue University said one of the rocket’s payloads is a drag sail that will attempt to pull the rocket’s second stage back to Earth. Called “Spinnaker3,” this drag sail isn’t the first to be launched into space. But it is among the first to be large enough for deorbiting the upper stage of a launch vehicle.

One on every flight? … “Drag sail technology is designed to launch with a host spacecraft or launch vehicle and deploy at the end of the host vehicle’s mission,” said David Spencer, an associate professor at Purdue. “The drag provided by the Earth’s atmosphere will accelerate the vehicle’s deorbit.” The Firefly Alpha launch will target an orbit altitude of about 200 miles, but the Spinnaker3 drag sail is capable of providing deorbit capability from orbit altitudes of 400 miles or greater.

bluShift Aerospace launches first rocket. The Maine-based startup bluShift Aerospace launched its first rocket prototype, called Stardust 1.0, on Sunday, despite freezing temperatures and two false starts. The rocket didn’t reach space (or even a mile up), but it marked a major milestone for a company aiming to launch bespoke missions tailored for tiny satellites, reports.

Still, a long way to go to space … “It went perfectly,” bluShift CEO Sascha Deri told reporters after the launch, which lifted off Sunday afternoon from a snow-covered runway at the Loring Commerce Center in Limestone, Maine. “It landed right where we were hoping for and where we were planning for. It couldn’t have been better than that.” Stardust 1.0 is a small sounding rocket powered by a “bio-derived” solid fuel to act as a testbed for future bluShift rockets capable of launching tiny nanosatellites. (submitted by Ken the Bin, Unrulycow, and platykurtic)

SpaceX sets another new record for reuse. A Falcon 9 rocket launched yet another batch of 60 Starlink satellites into low Earth orbit early on Thursday morning, Spaceflight Now reports. The mission was nominal, launching from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station at 1:19am local time.

Working toward rapid reuse … The rocket used for this stage had previously flown four missions, most recently launching Turksat 5A on January 8. As Eric Ralph of Teslarati noted, this crushed SpaceX’s current turnaround record by more than 25 percent, from 37 to 27 days. This booster, B1060, became the first Falcon 9 first stage to launch twice in less than a month. Turnaround time used to be four months, and now it’s four weeks. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

NASA sets launch date for Crew-2 mission. NASA said it is targeting no earlier than April 20 for launch of SpaceX’s second crew rotation mission to the International Space Station. This Crew-2 mission will launch four astronauts aboard a Crew Dragon spacecraft on a Falcon 9 rocket, and it will be the first mission to fly two international-partner crew members as part of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program.

Eyeing Crew-3 mission as well … NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur will serve as spacecraft commander and pilot, respectively. Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Akihiko Hoshide and European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet will join them as mission specialists. The space agency also said the Crew-3 mission is targeted for “fall” of 2021. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

H3 rocket “tilts” a bit during transport. As JAXA was transporting its first H3 rocket to the launch site in Tanegashima, the space agency apparently had some issues. According to a report on ANN News, the H3 booster “tilted” during transportation. Due to this, the arrival at the Tanegashima Space Center was delayed by about five hours.

Lean into launch … The trailer loaded with the rocket container tilted over for some reason—officials with the Japanese space agency have not specified why—on the premises of the rocket assembly facility on mainland Japan. The H3 rocket was manufactured by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and is due to be launched later this year. It appears to not have been damaged. (submitted by MarsGrownPotato)

NASA announces second hot-fire test of SLS. After completing a review of data collected from a hot-fire test of its Space Launch System rocket in mid-January, NASA has decided it needs to test the large vehicle again. The all-up engine firing is scheduled to occur during the week of February 21, Ars reports. During the January 16 test firing, when NASA intended to run the rocket’s four main engines for up to eight minutes, the test was aborted after just 67.2 seconds.

Shipping in March? … According to the agency, the original hot-fire test completed 15 of its 23 objectives. Because the test objectives were not met, engineers within the agency have been pushing NASA and Boeing leadership to conduct a second test to lower the risk of a failure during launch. Following the second hot-fire test—assuming that NASA and Boeing get the data needed—it will take about a month to refurbish the core stage and its engines. The vehicle will then be loaded onto a barge and shipped to Kennedy Space Center.

Another Starship crashes into South Texas. Once again, on Tuesday afternoon, a Starship prototype soared into the clear skies above South Texas like something out of the pages of a science fiction novel. Once again, after reaching a high altitude, the spaceship leaned into a “belly flop” maneuver, making a controlled descent back toward the planet. And then, once again, a problem within the last few seconds caused a Starship prototype to spectacularly crash near its launch platform. After two failures in seven weeks—SN8 and SN9—is the program in trouble?

Of course not … It’s just that what SpaceX is trying to do is really, really hard, Ars reports. Here’s how the company founder and chief engineer, Elon Musk, described the problem to his engineers during a 2019 meeting. “That is why we fight for mass, and we fight for every fraction of a second of ISP,” he said. “Especially with a reusable upper stage, which nobody has ever succeeded in. Just FYI. It’s not like they were huge idiots who wanted to throw their rocket away all the time. One of the hardest engineering problems known to man is making a reusable orbital rocket. It’s stupidly difficult to have a fully reusable orbital system. It would be one of the biggest breakthroughs in the history of humanity.”

Starship launched previously without an FAA waiver. The launch of prototype SN9 was delayed for several days last week while SpaceX waited for FAA approval. It turns out, this delay may have been for good reason following the SN8 launch late last year. The FAA stated, “Regarding the SpaceX Starship SN8 launch in December 2020, the company proceeded with the launch without demonstrating that the public risk from far field blast overpressure was within the regulatory criteria.”

So SpaceX launched without final approval in December … Following this unauthorized launch, FAA said it “required SpaceX to conduct an investigation of the incident, including a comprehensive review of the company’s safety culture, operational decision-making and process discipline.” Fortunately, this seems to have put the matter to rest. In an additional statement, the regulatory agency added, “The FAA-approved corrective actions implemented by SpaceX enhanced public safety. Those actions were incorporated into today’s SN9 launch. We anticipate taking no further enforcement action on SN8 matter.”

Ariane 6 upper stage ready for testing. The first complete Ariane 6 rocket upper stage has left the ArianeGroup facility in Bremen where it was developed and integrated, the company said. It is being moved to the German Aerospace Center site in Lampoldshausen for a hot-fire test in the second quarter of this year. The upper stage, fueled by liquid oxygen and hydrogen, will be fired up to four times.

Working on the first stage, too … These tests will serve to qualify the upper stage as “flight ready” for launch on the Ariane 6 rocket. Another stage to be used for combined tests of the launch system at facilities in Kourou, French Guiana, is currently being completed in Bremen. Meanwhile, the first upper-stage flight model intended for the Ariane 6 maiden flight is undergoing integration, said Karl-Heinz Servos, COO of ArianeGroup. The Ariane 6 rocket is expected to debut in 2022. (submitted by Ken the Bin and platykurtic)

Next three launches

Feb. 7: Falcon 9 | Starlink-17 | Kennedy Space Center, Fla. | 09:31 UTC

Feb. 11: Falcon 9 | Starlink-19 | Kennedy Space Center, Florida | 05:50 UTC (estimated)

Feb. 15: Soyuz | Progress 77P | Baikonur Cosmodrome | 04:45 UTC

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