In 2018, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced the multi-million-dollar DARPA Launch Challenge to promote rapid access to space within days rather than years. To earn prizes totaling more than US $12 million, rocket companies would have to launch unfamiliar satellites from two sites in quick succession.
“The launch environment of tomorrow will more closely resemble that of airline operations—with frequent launches from a myriad of locations worldwide,” said Todd Master, DARPA’s program manager for the competition at the time. The U.S. military relies on space-based systems for much of its navigation and surveillance needs, and wants a way to quickly replace damaged or destroyed satellites in the future. At the moment, it takes at least three years to build, test, and launch spacecraft.
To ensure that DARPA was incentivizing the flexible, responsive launch technologies the U.S. military needs, competitors would receive information about the site of their next launch fewer than 30 days prior to each flight, DARPA’s rules stated, and only learn their actual payloads two weeks out.
While 18 companies impressed DARPA enough to pre-qualify, just three startups overcame the Challenge’s first hurdle by securing a launch license from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.
Vector Launch had already flown prototype rockets on sub-orbital missions, and Virgin Orbit was developing an air-launched rocket that would be carried aloft by a modified Virgin Atlantic 747. The third qualifier was a space startup that asked to remain anonymous. In April 2019, each company received $400,000 to help them advance to the launch phase.
It was too little, too late for Vector, which in August replaced its founding CEO, Jim Cantrell, and suspended operations amid financial difficulties. In October, Virgin Orbit also pulled out, writing: “After comparing DARPA’s requested timeline with our commitments to our commercial and government customers, we have elected to withdraw from the competition.”
That left the hopes of the U.S. military resting on a mysterious space company still operating in stealth mode.
According to a recent filing at the FCC, the last startup standing in the Launch Challenge is actually Astra Space, a secretive Bay Area company that has won dozens of U.S. government contracts from NASA and the Pentagon. Astra Space does not even have a website, and calls itself a “stealth space company” in job listings.
Last year, Astra Space launched its first two sub-orbital rocket missions from the remote Pacific Spaceport Complex-Alaska (PSCA) on Kodiak Island. Neither flight was a complete success. The first resulted in minor damage to a rocket processing facility, and debris from both launches caused environmental damage that required hundreds of tons of soil to be removed for remediation.
In December, Astra Space was granted permission by the FCC for its first orbital rocket flight at PSCA. This will involve launching a small experimental satellite called GEARRS3, developed in part by the Air Force Research Laboratory.
Quick on the heels of that, Astra Space requested permission this week for another orbital launch, from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on the eastern shore of Virginia. In its application, Astra Space noted: “The operation is to launch a small satellite into low earth orbit. This will be a launch… in support of the DARPA Challenge.”
Schematic of the latest version of Astra Space's orbital launch vehicle.Credit: Astra Space/FCC
Under Launch Challenge rules, Astra Space should only have been informed of the launch site at most 30 days before making its attempt. Astra Space’s FCC paperwork, however, states an earliest launch date of 1 March 2020, giving Astra Space at least 55 days to prepare. The paperwork even requests permission to launch as late as the start of September.
Attempting to compress multi-year launch preparations into weeks “was always a bridge too far,” says Cantrell, ex-CEO of Vector. “From a purely physical point of view, we could string up a rocket up in our backyard and launch it, but the reality of the regulatory environment forces more of a six-to-12-month decision. We gave [DARPA] the feedback, gently, that it was not realistic.”
“We have made some amendments to timelines to allow compliance with national policy and regulatory requirements, while still meeting our goals of being responsive,” says Master. Although Astra Space will know where it will fly from, it will only receive its final trajectory 30 days prior to launch, and only receive the actual spacecraft a few days before.
Since qualifying for the Launch Challenge, Astra Space’s original FAA launch license expired. A fresh license [PDF], issued this week, allows Astra Space to use a new version of its rocket for its first orbital attempt—but only from PSCA in Alaska. It would need a modification of this license for its DARPA flight at Wallops, potentially adding another delay.
Astra Space did not immediately reply to requests for comment.
Despite the Launch Challenge loosening its rules and losing almost all its participants, Cantrell remains supportive of DARPA’s efforts. “They’re really pushing the boundaries and trying to break the rules of how things have always been done,” he says.
Mark Harris is an investigative science and technology reporter based in Seattle, with a particular interest in robotics, transportation, green technologies, and medical devices. He’s on Twitter at @meharris and email at mark(at)meharris(dot)com. Email or DM for Signal number for sensitive/encrypted messaging.