Astra's cubesat launch for NASA ends in failure

The company's track record has been flawed so far.

Astra/John Kraus

Space startup Astra's effective commercial debut didn't quite go according to plan. As SpaceNews reports, the company's first practical mission for NASA failed when the Rocket 3.3 vehicle's upper stage flew out of control shortly after detaching from the first stage. While the launch itself went smoothly, footage suggests the payload fairing separation went awry.

The rocket was carrying NASA's ELaNa 41 (Educational Launch of Nanosatellites) mission. Three of the four cubesats aboard the flight were from universities hoping to conduct experiments for drag sails, space weather modelling and quantum gyroscopes. The fourth, from NASA itself, was meant to test quick and low-cost methods to build and inspect cubesats.

In a statement, Astra said it was "deeply sorry" for losing the payloads and would shed more light on the incident after a "data review." The launch had already been delayed several days, in part due to a range problem.

No private space firm wants an incident like this, but it might have been more damaging to Astra than for others. This was Astra's fifth attempt at orbit, and all but one of them have ended in failure. The setback could hurt Astra's chances at competing with companies like Rocket Lab and SpaceX, both of which have better (if still imperfect) track records.

This also underscores the challenges involved with private spaceflight. While it's playing an increasingly important role in commercial and scientific programs, the companies and their technology are still relatively young — even heavyweights like Boeing are struggling. It may take some time before there's a wide range of providers that can reliably ferry cargo.