DARPA’s race for fast rocket launch provider ends without winner

On March 2nd a race by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to find a rocket company capable of quickly sending satellites into space ended without a winner, when the last team failed to launch before the competition deadline,media The Verge reported. Astra Space, the rocket start-up, had planned to launch a competing new rocket outside Alaska in less than a minute, but had to suspend its launch because of some poor data. As a result, the company failed to win up to $12 million in prize money – and now, no company will win it.

DARPA's race for fast rocket launch provider ends without winner

The competition, known as the DARPA Launch Challenge, began about two years ago with the goal of finding a rocket launch provider that could respond quickly to the military’s request to launch any payload. In order to win, qualified teams must prove that they can launch small national security satellites from almost any launch site in the United States. A company must launch at least two rockets with DARPA payloads within a very specific window, within two weeks of each other.

DARPA initially selected three teams to compete in the challenge, including Vox Space, a subsidiary of Virgin Orbit, and Vector, a former small satellite launcher that went bankrupt in December. The two companies pulled out, leaving only Astra Space. Over the past two years, Astra has been testing its new vehicle and has had several failed launches, including one that contaminated soil at the Pacific SpacePort complex on Kodiak Island, Alaska.

However, Astra was still competing, and on February 18th DARPA publicly disclosed the date and location of the company’s launch attempt. To win, Astra must launch a rocket from the Pacific Spaceport Complex between February 17 and March 1, and then again in late March. For the first launch, DARPA detailed the payload that Astra would launch, which the company added to the top of the rocket only when the satellite reached the Alaska launch site. The initial payload consisted of three small satellites.

After some weather delays, Astra is finally scheduled to launch on March 2, the last day of the window, which has been extended by a day due to bad weather. After placing the rocket on the launch pad, the company counted down to T-53, but eventually stopped counting when engineers saw some bad data coming out of the rocket. The engineering team tried to resolve the issue by the end of the launch window before 6:30 p.m. EST, but did not resolve the issue in time.

“Fundamentally, safety is our top priority, and winning today will be a daunting challenge, but our goal is actually to get on track as little as possible,” Astra co-founder and CEO Chris Kemp said in a live broadcast. “So we really wanted to use this rocket, and when we knew everything was perfect, we wanted to get out there again.” Unfortunately, that’s not today. “

If Astra had been successful, the company could have won $2m and qualified for another $10m in the event of a second launch in a few weeks. Now that no company will win the prize, DARPA plans to unload the payload from Astra’s rocket. “It’s a tough challenge,” Todd Master, project manager for the DARPA Launch Challenge, said live. “We set it to what we can do. What is certain, however, is that DARPA requires us to conduct rigorous and hard testing, and we require competitors to do so. They almost reached the finish line, but they didn’t do enough. “

Meanwhile, Astra said it was already working on its next launch attempt, possibly as early as March 15 in Alaska. Kemp said he wasn’t sure what the company would do, if any. “Frankly, our rocket has attracted interest,” Kemp told The Verge after the launch. DARPA’s payload has been removed as part of the challenge, so we are trying to decide whether to regain a license to fly without a payload or whether one of our many customers can prepare us. “