A Closer Look at Astra Space

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

At some point in the next few weeks, the Pacific Spaceport Complex — Alaska will host its first commercial rocket launch. Officials at the Alaska Aerospace Corporation, which runs the spaceport, are hoping the suborbital test flight is the first of many commercial flights from the underused facility.

While officials have not identified the California company conducting the launch, a perusal of the corporation’s board minutes indicate it is almost certainly a small Bay Area startup named Astra Space.

Formerly known as Ventions LLC, the company has spent the last 14 years working on an array of different small launch vehicle and satellite technologies, including rocket stages, liquid bi-propellant motors, electric engine and turbine-driven pumps, and in-space propulsion for CubeSats.

Along the way, Astra Spaced has been quite successful in obtaining government funding to fund its research and development. A search of databases show the company has been awarded 29 contracts worth nearly $21 million over the past 11 years from NASA, U.S. Air Force, DARPA, Missile Defense Agency and the U.S. Army.

Astra Space is operating under a $2 million contract with NASA to develop and flight test a high performance electric pump-fed launch vehicle. The 18-month contract runs through mid-December.

ASTRA SPACE/VENTIONS LLC CONTRACTS
PROJECTAGENCY
DATES
AMOUNT ALLOCATED
Development & Flight-testing High-performance Electric Pump-fed Launch VehicleNASA6/13/17 – 12/14/18$920,877 (out of $2.0 million)
Pump and Electric MotorNASA3/30/17 – 12/24/17$969,775
Electric Pump Fed Propulsion for a Liquid Bipropellant Mars Ascent VehicleNASA6/1/16 – 12/9/16$124,586
Affordable, Small-Class Launch Vehicle WorkNASA5/3/16 – 3/5/17$949,395
Electric Pump-fed LOX/RP EngineNASA1/30/15 – 3/31/16$125,000
High-Performance, Pump-Fed Propulsion for Mars Ascent Vehicle ApplicationsNASA5/29/15 – 12/17/15$124,746
Small-Scale, Methane-Fueled Reaction Control Engines for In-Space PropulsionNASA5/28/15 – 12/17/15$124,909
Low-Cost and High-Performance Propulsion for Small Satellite ApplicationsNASA6/2/14 – 12/19/14$124,552
On-Board Pressurization Systems for Sample Return MissionsNASA5/28/14 – 12/19/14$124,931
A High Performance, Electric Pump-fed LOX/RP Propulsion SystemNASA4/17/14 – 3/31/16$1,089,516
Regeneratively-Cooled, Pump-Fed Propulsion Technology for Nano / Micro Satellite Launch VehiclesNASA5/22/13 – 11/23/13$199,477
Launch Vehicle for Dedicated Orbital Launch of Small-scale PayloadsDOD – Air Force Research Laboratory9/13/12 – 6/30/16$7,081,190
High-performance, Pump-fed Upper Stage for Nano-launch VehicleDOD – DARPA4/2/12 – 10/2/13$969,396
A LOX-Cooled, Pump-Fed Rocket Engine for Sample Return ApplicationsNASA2/13/12 – 8/13/12$124,481
A High-Payload Fraction, Pump-Fed, 2-Stage Nano Launch VehicleNASA2/13/12 – 8/13/12$124,550
High-Performance, Pump-Fed Propulsion for Missile Defense InterceptorsDOD — Missile Defense Agency1/12/12 – 7/31/12$99,873
Regeneratively-Cooled, Turbopump-Fed, Small-Scale Cryogenic Rocket EnginesNASA6/1/11 – 5/31/13$599,679
Low-Cost and Light-Weight Transpiration-Cooled Thrust ChambersNASA2/17/11 – 12/3/11$99,437
High Performance Micro Rocket Stages for Tactical & Space ApplicationsDOD — U.S. Army Contracting Command8/25/10 – 11/30/12$2,883,860
Regeneratively-cooled, Turbopump-fed LOX/Methane Lunar Ascent EnginesNASA1/26/10 – 7/29/10$99,186
Small, Light-Weight Pump Technology for On-Board Pressurization of Propellants in a Mars Ascent VehicleNASA12/28/09 – 12/27/11$598,832
High Performance Micro Rocket Stages for Tactical & Space ApplicationsDOD – DARPA8/12/09 – 3/19/10$98,666
High T/W, Low TSFC Propulsion System for PAV ApplicationsDOD – DARPA7/1/09 – 3/10/10$98,584
Small, Light-Weight Pump Technologies for Mars Ascent VehiclesNASA1/9/09 – 7/22/09$99,728
Nanosat PropulsionNASA8/1/08 – 6/26/09$303,000
Metal-foil Micro-rocketsDOD – DARPA5/27/08 – 1/27/11$749,233
Silicon-Based Chemical Micro-Thrusters for Nano and Pico Satellite ApplicationsDOD — U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory10/11/07 – 6/30/08$99,849
Seeding R&DDOD – DARPA5/10/07 – 6/30/08$580,984
Unspecified ResearchDOD – DARPA1/18/07 – 7/23/07$298,958
TOTAL:$19,887,250 (out of $20,966,373)

So, what exactly is Astra Space planning to launch? Gunter’s Space Page says it is likely a small rocket named Astra capable of orbiting a payload weighing about 100 kg (220.5 lb) into low Earth orbit. The upcoming flight test, however, is believed to be suborbital.

“This vehicle likely builds on the experience gained by developing the SALVO launch vehicle,” the website reports. “The first stage of Astra is powered by five engines driven by battery-powered pumps.”

SALVO was a small-satellite launcher the company developed under DARPA’s Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) program. SALVO was designed to launch a payload weighing 5 kg (11 lb) into orbit from an unmodified F-15E aircraft.

The booster was an alternative to a rocket developed by ALASA’s main contractor, Boeing. However, DARPA canceled the program after problems surfaced with Boeing’s booster; it is believed that neither rocket flew.

The Ventions website indicates the company was founded in 2004 by Adam London and Matt Lehman.

Dr. London holds a PhD in Aero / Astro from MIT’s Gas Turbine Laboratory, having conducted his doctoral research under a DARPA / NASA funded program to provide the first experimental demonstration of a liquid-bipropellant micro-rocket engine fabricated from silicon. He also holds BS and MS degrees from MIT, and has been a NASA Graduate Fellow funded through Goddard’s GSRP Program. He has also participated in the NASA Academy program at the Goddard Space Flight Center, where he received the Director’s Award for best all-round Research Associate, and has worked for Orbital Sciences Corporation on the X-34 as well as the TSS-1 mission on STS-46….

Prior to joining Ventions, Dr. Lehman worked as Senior Project Leader within the Delta IV Program Office of The Aerospace Corporation, where he had overall responsibility for all propulsion/mechanical issues on the first stage of the Delta IV rocket for Air Force missions. He also interfaced directly with United Launch Alliance engineering and internal engineering and lab personnel, and gained valuable component and system level experience encompassing conceptual design, qualification and flight.

Dr. Lehman also worked as Propulsion Analysis Manager at Space Exploration Technologies, with primary responsibility in turbomachinery analysis, design and development testing. His tenure saw successful flight qualification of the Merlin engine turbopump, and upgrades for increased thrust applications.

You can read their full biographies here.

  • Michael Halpern

    World’s smallest ORBITAL rocket, calling it the world’s smallest rocket is asking Estes and others to beg to differ, my view on small launch is that most will die out, those that don’t will either bootstrap for larger or primarily go polar and as backup option to rideshare. They will never be able to compete cost/kg with larger rlvs if bfr price estimates are anything to go by, they may eventually stuggle cost per launch over fully reusable mega rockets, still will be interesting to see how it goes.

  • MzUnGu

    Agreed… Life history of Pegasus, and Falcon 1….and a few others. The CEO prob do see it as a stepping stone to get their engineer/company trained for bigger things.

    Do wonder is re-usability can change that cost/kg some for small launchers…

  • Michael Halpern

    It can but with small launchers you already have less payload capacity to play with and to survive the stresses you need at least so much material (heat shield and what not) so payload penalty will be felt more

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    My eye keeps seeing a 30.06 round. I just want to chamber that thing and lock the bolt and …..

  • JS Initials

    LOL! The Second Amendment gives you the right to bear ballistic missiles.
    Ballistic missiles don’t kill people; people kill people.

  • JS Initials

    Looks like this Astra booster can be clustered; two strap-ons fastened to a stretched version of the original booster, and you could orbit up to 1/4 of a tonne. And the two strap-ons can be modified to land on barges in the North Pacific….or…descend by chutes to be snagged by modified aircraft which would winch them in to padded cargo bays or onto Kevlar nets stretched between twin fuselages.

  • Michael Halpern

    evidence?

  • JS Initials

    Why couldn’t that booster evolve into a cluster of 3 or 5?
    As for snagging boosters under chutes using aircraft?
    Check out what the Navy did in August, 1960 over the Pacific in Project Discovery (Corona). 58 years later, has technology and engineering de-evolved or evolved?

  • Michael Halpern

    Why because of dynamic stresses, it isn’t that easy to do as for catching them they are a small company assume they don’t have the resources to spend on aircraft

  • SamuelRoman13

    2nd only gives right to bear arms. Gov. has right to make law(enactment clause) to control arms, if they mean firearms they only knew flintlocks and I would like to see guns restricted to flintlocks, since it would pass strict interpretation of Constitution. would pass Supreme Court. Then go from there for new gun laws.

  • Michael Halpern

    Air capture is not an effective way to do anything it is overcomplicated, we only did it with Corona because we had no other option

  • duheagle

    Sayeth noted Constitutional scholar SamualRoman13. Whenever you’re not sure about something, kiddies, be sure to ask an expert.

  • duheagle

    The electric engine pumps thing was interesting. So the Rocket Lab Rutherford is not unique.

  • Michael Halpern

    Electric pump driven engines are more common with sounding rockets

  • SamuelRoman13

    Through out time our ancestors thought food and public safety was important. Guns are a public safety problem. A judge could issue an order for anything. Such as to a gun seller: stop selling guns. They could ask what do you mean? The judge can say stop or pay a fine. Do you want a hearing or trial? They could appeal to a higher court.

    Sincerely: The Expert

  • IamGrimalkin

    Wouldn’t a better analogue of ballistic missiles at the time be cannons, not flintlocks?

  • duheagle

    Our ancestors used to hunt for a lot of their food – using guns. Our ancestors thought the biggest threat to public safety was the British Army. Guns are a civil right. Criminality is a public safety problem. Judges can’t issue orders unless a case of some kind is brought before them. Despite the best efforts of the organized Left to make them such, judges are not little dictators who can rule by decree.

    Your sincerity is not at issue. Your grasp of elementary American civics on the other hand…

  • duheagle

    Didn’t know that. Thanks.

  • duheagle

    and ….. say goodbye to your shoulder ….. and clavicle ….. and arm ….. and half your rib cage ….. and most of your giblets.

  • Michael Halpern

    Main reason is so that you don’t have to design and manufacture small turbopumps, which are typically one of the more complex components in rocket engines, with sounding rockets you don’t have as much concern over TWR, so sacrificing some to make your rocket less expensive as you aren’t going to orbit anyways is a good trade off, think there’s also scaling issues mostly related to batteries and motor mass when you get past a certain point

  • duheagle

    Yes, I don’t think electric motors and batteries would scale well enough – given present technology – to use on something like Falcon 9. But I didn’t know there were sounding rockets with electric pumps. My impression has been that most small liquid-propellant rockets use pressure-fed engines that don’t have pumps of any kind.

  • JS Initials

    Didn’t recognize tongue planted firmly in cheek? 🙂

  • Michael Halpern

    Depends on the size sounding rocket

  • John Smith

    Nope, not the smallest orbital rocket. Japan’s SS-520-5 recently *achieved* orbit with payload of 3kg. Yep, you read that right a whopping 3 kilograms (~6.6 pounds). I doubt anyone is ever going to limbo in under that record.

  • Michael Halpern

    Smallest practical orbital rocket

  • Michael Halpern

    Ss 520-5 was more of a demonstration of how small it can get not a practical vehicle