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Astra Space faces critics, skeptics as it plans Florida launch

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Astra Space faces critics, skeptics as it plans Florida launch
Astra Space's Rocket 3.3 is readied for a launch from Alaska in August. Photo courtesy of Astra Space

Dec. 31 (UPI) -- Astra Space, one of few new rocket companies to reach orbit, is facing stiff criticism from skeptics about its business model as it plans its first launch from Florida..

The California-based company announced Dec. 6 that it planned to launch NASA satellites in January from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. Since then, the company has released no further details about a launch date and has not responded to requests for an interview or more information.

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Astra holds a contract to launch tiny NASA satellites within the next six months under the space agency's Educational Launch of Nanosatellites program, but neither Astra nor NASA has confirmed the payload for the upcoming launch.

On Wednesday, Astra became the target of a harsh critique by New York-based financial firm Kerrisdale Capital, which said the rocket company has "no revenue, no track record of reliability, and no established market for its undersized vehicle."

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Kerrisdale announced that it has taken a short position on Astra's stock, which means it could make money if the space company's stock drops in value. After the report, the stock plummeted 10%. It recovered some of that value Thursday, closing up 2.1% at $6.75.

At least two law firms have announced they are investigating Astra for possible "violations of the securities laws" following the Kerrisdale report.

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Astra successfully launched an orbital test mission from Alaska in November for the U.S. Department of Defense, which prompted its stock to rise 30% the next day to about $11.17 per share.

At the time, CEO Chris Kemp said the successful launch would allow the company to "focus on delivering for our customers and scaling up rocket production and launch cadence."

But others have criticized the business model Astra has laid out as its plan for success, saying it relies too heavily on a dizzying pace of planned launches -- up to one launch per week by the end of 2021, Pierre Lionnet, research director at Paris-based space industry associate ASD Eurospace, said in an interview with UPI on Thursday.

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"The business proposal doesn't make sense," Lionnet said. "Astra wants you to believe that it can sell cheap rockets for launches tailored to individual customers. But not everyone can afford a [custom] suit. There is no indication that the number of customers they need are actually out there."

Astra's Rocket 3.3 is relatively small, at just over 38 feet, compared to SpaceX's Falcon 9, which is more than 229 feet high. Small launch competitor Rocket Lab's Electron is 56 feet high.

Rocket Lab has had 20 successful Electron launches, but it announced in September that it would build a much bigger, partly reusable rocket -- Neutron -- to take advantage of lower costs per pound to get satellites into orbit.

Even SpaceX, the industry leader, had just 31 launches in 2021, breaking a record for a private launcher. There is no evidence that demand exists for weekly launches for such a tiny rocket, Lionnet said, especially when SpaceX already has carried up to 143 small satellites into orbit on a single flight.

"There's some frothy investor sentiment about space today," he said. "Everyone seems to be so excited about investing in space, they are willing to hold on for years with little evidence of success."

The Department of Defense has provided some support to Astra, along with other small launch companies, to develop more launch capability, Dale Ketcham, vice president of development for Space Florida, said in an interview.

"The Space Force and others are very eager to push the concept of multi-user launch pads, particularly for the smaller vehicles to get more bang for the buck for each launch location," Ketcham said.

He said Astra was able to get speedy approval, in just a few months, to launch from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station's Complex 16 partly because it was able to demonstrate that it could bring in a rocket and support equipment with little modification to the existing infrastructure.

Space Florida helped arrange the launch as the space development agency for the state, but Ketcham credited the Space Force with making the launch possible quickly.

"Astra is one of many new companies to be launching here who are going to get us from the 30 or so launches we have now to over 100 per year," Ketcham said.

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Another strategy Astra is using is to buy some components "off the shelf" from commercial suppliers, rather than have them designed for their rocket, Chris Quilty, space analyst and founder of Florida-based Quilty Analytics, said in an interview.

When asked about the reliability of such a strategy, Kemp said in an investor conference that reliability wasn't the key selling point for the company, Quilty noted.

"When I heard that, my jaw just dropped," he said. "Reliability is a key to any launch provider's success."

"It all depends on Astra executing a business model that has never been identified or completed in this industry -- which is very high-volume manufacturing," Quilty said.

Out-of-this-world images from space

The International Space Station is pictured from the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour during a flyaround of the orbiting lab that took place following its undocking from the Harmony module’s space-facing port on November 8. Photo courtesy of NASA

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