By Jackie Wattles, CNN Business
Astra, a startup building small rockets that launch out of rural Alaska, notched its first successful test flight on Friday night, putting a dummy satellite into orbit. The flight sent the company’s stock price on a tear — soaring more than 30% at one point after trading hours opened Monday morning.
Astra is one of dozens of companies that plan to use lightweight rockets to make frequent trips to space to drop off satellites. Astra, Rocket Lab and California-based Virgin Orbit are among the only startups that have now proven their rockets can get the job done.
While 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, Astra is looking to compete elsewhere. 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.
Footage of Friday’s launch, captured at the company’s launch site in Kodiak, Alaska, shows the rocket roaring to life and making a clean swoop up into the night sky. It was the fourth attempt by the company to fire a rocket into orbit, and the success put Astra within the ranks of a small handful of private space exploration companies that have managed to safely put a rocket into orbit.
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 that “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, but it doesn’t put too much emphasis on having a pristine success rate.
“I just want to say how incredibly appreciative I am of our shareholders, our customers, for their patience with us,” CEO Chris Kemp told reporters Monday morning. “And, of course, for the entire team here who’s just worked so hard over the past couple of years, launch after launch, just continuing to put energy and passion into this.”
The rocket company is one of numerous space companies that chose to make its stock market debut via SPAC — or special purpose acquisition company — in recent months. Many of those companies, including Astra, took that leap despite not having proven their technological chops at the time of their stock market listing.
But Friday’s long-awaited successful test launch appeared to rally investors.
Its market value shot up to more than $3 billion, a significant markup over the $2.1 billion valuation the company was given when it announced its SPAC plans in February.
It also marked a recovery for the stock after it took a significant hit in the wake of Astra’s last launch attempt in August. Rather than climbing skyward, the company’s 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.
Kemp told reporters that Friday’s success was not without its challenges, not least of which was combating freezing temperatures in Kodiak.
The satellite that launched Friday isn’t designed to do anything useful, rather it was simply designed to simulate the weight of a real satellite. But Kemp said the company is now ready to focus on fine-tuning its rocket design, scaling up production and offering its services to paying customers.
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