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Rocket startup Astra makes its first launch but fails to reach orbit

New satellite delivery and launch company Astra attempted its first orbital launch late on Friday night with mixed results. The rocket, code-named Rocket 3.1, launched successfully but failed to reach orbit due to a problem during the first stage burn.

“Successful lift off and fly out, but the flight ended during the first stage burn,” the company confirmed on Twitter. “It does look like we got a good amount of nominal flight time. More updates to come!”

There was no live video of the launch and only some details are available, but in a briefing Astra announced that the rocket, which was not carrying any payload, fell back to Earth and landed in a safe area.

Astra was positive about the progress, however, writing in a blog post, “Tonight, we saw a beautiful launch!” and “Preliminary data review indicates the rocket performed very well.” The company founders, Chris Kemp and Adam London, also said that they had expected to need three flights before reaching orbit, reflecting the technical difficulties of rocket projects.

Even SpaceX CEO Elon Musk sent his commiserations on Twitter, saying that it took his company four launches to reach orbit.

Astra's Rocket 3.1 leaving the pad at the Kodiak launch site
Astra’s Rocket 3.1 leaving the pad at the Kodiak launch site Astra/John Kraus

In terms of what went wrong, Kemp and London wrote that, “Early in the flight, our guidance system appears to have introduced some slight oscillation into the flight, causing the vehicle to drift from its planned trajectory leading to a commanded shutdown of the engines by the flight safety system.” To learn more about the issue, the company will be analyzing the flight data to see what to fix for their next launch, which will be made with a vehicle code-named Rocket 3.2 that has already been built.

If you haven’t heard of Astra before, it’s because the startup operated in “stealth mode” for three years during its development and testing phases. The company announced itself earlier this year, ambitiously saying it wishes to offer rockets to deploy satellites for as little as $1 million per launch. Based in Alameda, the company has taken up funding from various silicon valley investors to finance its development so far.

Updated 12th September: Added information about the landing of the rocket.

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