Astra’s Frugal Design Leads To Latest Unusual Failure

We’ve all heard it said, and it bears repeating: getting to space is hard. But it actually gets even harder the smaller your booster is. That’s because the structure, engines, avionics, and useful payload of a rocket only make up a tiny portion of its liftoff mass, while the rest is dedicated to the propellant it must expend to reach orbital velocity. That’s why a Falcon 9 tipping the scales at 549,054 kilograms (1,207,920 pounds) can only loft a payload of 22,800 kg (50,265 lb) — roughly 4% of its takeoff weight.

As you might imagine, there’s a lower limit where there simply isn’t enough mass in the equation for the hardware necessary to build a fully functional rocket. But where is that limit? That’s precisely what aerospace newcomer Astra is trying to find out. Their Rocket 3 is among the smallest orbital boosters to ever fly, closer in size and mass to the German V2 of World War II than the towering vehicles being built by SpaceX or Blue Origin. Even the Rocket Lab Electron, itself an exceptionally svelte rocket, is considerably larger.

The reason they’re trying to build such a small rocket is of course very simple: smaller means cheaper. Assuming you’ve got a payload light and compact enough to fit on their launcher, Astra says they can put it into orbit for roughly $2.5 million USD; less than half the cost of a dedicated flight aboard Rocket Lab’s Electron, and competitive with SpaceX’s “rideshare” program. Such a low ticket price would have been unfathomable a decade ago, and promises to shake up an already highly competitive commercial launch market. But naturally, Astra has to get the thing flying reliably before we can celebrate this new spaceflight milestone.

Their latest mission ended in a total loss of the vehicle and payload when the upper stage tumbled out of control roughly three minutes after an otherwise perfect liftoff from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. Such issues aren’t uncommon for a new orbital booster, and few rockets in history have entered regular service without a lost payload or two on the books. But this failure, broadcast live over the Internet, was something quite unusual: because of the unconventional design of Astra’s diminutive rocket, the upper stage appeared to get stuck inside the booster after the payload fairing failed to open fully.

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SpaceX Drops The Ball On Catching Fairings

You don’t have to look very hard to find another rousing success by SpaceX. It’s a company defined by big and bold moves, and when something goes right, they make sure you know about it. From launching a Tesla into deep space to the captivating test flights of their next-generation Starship spacecraft, the private company has turned high-stakes aerospace research and development into a public event. A cult of personality has developed around SpaceX’s outlandish CEO Elon Musk, and so long as he’s at the helm, we can expect bigger and brighter spectacles as he directs the company towards its ultimate goal of putting humans on Mars.

Of course, things don’t always go right for SpaceX. While setbacks are inevitable in aerospace, the company has had a few particularly embarrassing failures that could be directly attributed to their rapid development pace or even operational inexperience. A perfect example is the loss of the Israeli AMOS-6 satellite during a static fire of the Falcon 9’s engines on the launch pad in 2016, as industry experts questioned why the spacecraft had even been mounted to the rocket before it had passed its pre-flight checks. Since that costly mistake, the company has waited until all engine tests have been completed before attaching the customer’s payload.

SpaceX’s concept art for propulsive landing

But sometimes the failure isn’t so much a technical problem as an inability for the company to achieve their own lofty goals. Occasionally one of Musk’s grand ideas ends up being too complex, dangerous, or expensive to put into practice. For instance, despite spending several years and untold amounts of money perfecting the technology involved, propulsive landings for the Crew Dragon were nixed before the idea could ever fully be tested. NASA was reportedly uncomfortable with what they saw as an unnecessary risk compared to the more traditional ocean splashdown under parachutes; it would have been an impressive sight to be sure, but it didn’t offer a substantive benefit over the simpler approach.

A similar fate recently befell SpaceX’s twin fairing recovery ships Ms. Tree and Ms. Chief, which were quietly retired in April. These vessels were designed to catch the Falcon’s school bus sized payload fairings as they drifted down back to Earth using massive nets suspended over their decks, but in the end, the process turned out to be more difficult than expected. More importantly, it apparently wasn’t even necessary in the first place.

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SpaceX Joins In The Long History Of Catching Stuff From Space

On February 22nd, a Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and successfully delivered into orbit an Earth-observation satellite operated by the Spanish company Hisdesat. Compared to the media coverage received by the launch of the Tesla-laden Falcon Heavy earlier in the month, this mission got very little attention. But that’s hardly surprising. With respect to Hisdesat, the payload this time around was not terribly exciting, and even the normally dramatic landing of the Falcon 9’s first stage was skipped in favor of simply allowing the booster to crash into the ocean.

As far as SpaceX launches go, this one was about as low-key as they come. It wouldn’t be a surprise if this is the first time some readers are even hearing about it. But while it didn’t invoke the same media circus as the images of a spacesuit-wearing mannequin traveling into deep space, there was still a historic “first” performed during this mission.

In an effort to increase the re-usability of the Falcon 9 booster, SpaceX attempted to catch the payload fairing (essentially a large protective nose cone) with a huge net as it fell from space. The most interesting thing about this new chapter in the quest for a fully reusable rocket system is that while SpaceX is generally considered to be pioneers in the world of bringing hardware back from space, this particular trick dates all the way back to the 1960’s.

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