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Rocket Report: SpaceX broomstick cleaning up contracts, Astra back on track

Astra's LV0009 takes off from Kodiak Island, Alaska, on March 15.
Enlarge / Astra’s LV0009 takes off from Kodiak Island, Alaska, on March 15.

Welcome to Edition 4.36 of the Rocket Report! As I took last week off for Spring Break, there is quite a bit of news to get to this week, including positive steps forward for some US small launch companies and SpaceX reaching another milestone with its Falcon 9 rocket.

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 successfully returns to flight. Astra launched its Rocket 3.3 vehicle on March 15 and placed several payloads into low Earth orbit, SpaceNews reports. The Rocket 3.3 vehicle, designated LV0009 by Astra, took flight from Pacific Spaceport Complex on Kodiak Island and delivered payloads for Spaceflight Inc. to a Sun-synchronous orbit at an altitude of 525 kilometers. This success followed a launch failure on February 10 of the Rocket 3.3 vehicle. That failure was caused by a wiring system error in the payload fairing.

Back on track … Just before the launch, Astra announced that the flight was part of a multimission deal with Spaceflight Inc. Terms of the “multi-launch” contract were not disclosed. A publicly traded company, Astra saw its stock rise about 20 percent in the week following the successful launch, which indicates that the company may finally have solved the issues with the Rocket 3.3 booster. More success, of course, will breed more confidence in Astra, but this was a good start. (submitted by Ken the Bin and EllPeaTea)

Firefly gets spaceport access, new funding. Firefly Aerospace will make its second attempt to reach orbit with its Alpha rocket in May, having received government approval to resume launch operations, CNBC reports. Firefly CEO Tom Markusic said the company “worked methodically and cooperatively with the government” to both complete a divestment and to add “security protocols.” With these moves complete, Markusic said the company now has “full access to our facilities to go back and launch” from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.

Infusion of money … The government halted Firefly’s launch operations at Vandenberg in late 2021, saying Ukrainian software entrepreneur Max Polyakov’s venture must sell his 50 percent stake in Firefly. The divestiture came late last month, soon after Russia invaded Ukraine. Separately, Firefly also closed a $75 million fundraising round led by AE Industrial Partners, which Markusic said means that the company’s broader growth plan is “fully funded.” This is good news for Firefly as it seeks to get Alpha flying regularly and to develop its Blue Ghost lunar lander. (submitted by EllPeaTea and Ken the Bin)

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Ursa Major starts delivering engines. Startup Ursa Major announced Wednesday that it has completed qualification of its Hadley rocket engine for use by both a space launch vehicle and a hypersonic launch system. The Colorado-based company said it has already started delivering flight-ready Hadley engines to two customers, Phantom Space and Stratolaunch, and plans to produce 30 engines this year. As Hadley is intended to serve multiple users, the engine has undergone significantly more test time, about 40,000 seconds to date, Ars reports.

Seeking to control costs … The Hadley engine is relatively small as rocket engines go, with about 5,000 pounds of thrust. At that performance level, the Hadley is comparable to Rocket Lab’s Rutherford engine, nine of which power the first stage of Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket. Ursa Major is a new space startup that is focused on developing only rocket engines rather than the entire rocket. It has sought to keep engine costs low by using mass-market 3D printers and by keeping a relatively low headcount. The total number of employees at Ursa Major only recently topped 200. To date, the company has raised about $140 million.

Blue Origin set for next New Shepard launch. Blue Origin’s first launch of 2022 will take place on March 29. Although the company originally said that actor Pete Davidson would be a guest on this flight, it later said he was “no longer able” to join the mission. Blue Origin chose Gary Lai to fly in his place. Lai may not be famous like Davidson, but he is certainly more deserving. A Blue Origin employee, he was the architect of the New Shepard system and is highly regarded within the industry. It’s great to see him get a chance to fly.

Another deserving passenger, too … Also on this suborbital flight will be Marty Allen, husband and wife duo Sharon and Marc Hagle, Jim Kitchen, and George Nield (also a very deserving passenger for his work on commercial space at the FAA). This mission is the fourth human flight for the New Shepard program and the 20th overall flight in the program’s history. Liftoff is currently targeted for 8:30 am CT (13:30 UTC) from Launch Site One in West Texas. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

RFA says no engine concerns due to Ukraine. Rocket Factory Augsburg (RFA) announced earlier this month that, after a public competition, it has named the staged combustion engine for its RFA One launch vehicle “Helix.” Nine of the engines, which have a thrust of 22,500 pounds and are fueled by kerosene and liquid oxygen, will power the first stage of the rocket. RFA says it is close to completing the first Helix in the flight configuration and is preparing it for long-duration hot fire tests. One concern hanging over the company has been the origin of this engine, with some reports suggesting it was being purchased from a company in Ukraine.

Will the war affect the company’s plans? … The short answer is no, according to Jonas Kellner, RFA’s head of communications. The longer version: “RFA made a one-time purchase of a used turbopump from Yuzmash and imported it to Germany with all necessary import licenses. The reason for this was to quickly get into testing with this hardware and to obtain valuable data for its own development of the turbopump and the remaining components—which are heavily dependent on it in an engine with staged combustion. This flight-configuration Helix is 100 percent designed and built by RFA, and all its components are 100 percent IP of RFA. Yuzmash is not a supplier to RFA. Accordingly, RFA is completely independent of Yuzmash and does not feel any direct impact of the Ukraine war.”

India completes testing of small rocket booster. The Indian space agency, ISRO, has completed testing of the solid-fuel-based booster stage of its new Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV), The Indian Express reports. This finalizes the ground-test program of all three stages of the launch vehicle. The new launch vehicle is now ready for its first test flight, which is scheduled for May this year. Typically, ISRO declares a launch vehicle operational after two successful development flights.

Smaller rocket, smaller price … Originally scheduled to debut in 2020, work on the new vehicle was delayed, in part, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The new rocket is designed to be smaller, cheaper, and quickly assembled for commercial launches on demand. The SSLV is likely to cost about $4 million to $6 million per launch compared to the $16 million to $25 million for a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), which is India’s workhorse. The SSLV can be assembled by a team of six within seven days—in comparison to a team of 600 that takes a couple of months to assemble a PSLV. The launch vehicle will carry smaller payloads of about 500 kg in comparison to 1,750 kg carried by PSLV. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

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