The small launch industry is brutal—yes, even more than you thought

Enlarge / Astra’s Rocket 3.1 takes off on September 11, 2020. It failed 30 seconds into flight. (credit: Astra/John Kraus)

One of the most honest moments in a new book, When the Heavens Went on Sale, comes during a discussion between two aerospace technicians working at the rocket company Astra in December 2018. On a Sunday, Les Martin and Dave Flanagan were watching football inside an RV parked at Astra’s facilities near Oakland, California.

Martin in particular had a lot of experience at launch companies, having worked primarily on test stands for SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Firefly Space, and now Astra. The two were discussing the challenges of the launch industry and musing about how any company ever made money launching rockets.

Martin: The challenge is to get there before you run out of money.

Flanagan: Right.

Martin: Because it doesn’t take long. I mean, you raise a little money, you can run through it quick. All the money that is being dumped into this is absurd. There’s some charlatans in this business for sure. And what’s it all for? I don’t see the need for all of it. It doesn’t make sense. These VCs made their money in software or whatever. And you know, they just love space. I think a lot of it is it’s just cool for them to invest their money in this.

Even with us, the whole goal is for us to launch daily. I’m either going to be dead in the ground before that happens or I’ll be walking down the street with money falling out of my pockets and won’t care that they’re launching daily.

Spoiler alert: Astra is not launching daily. In fact, after five failures in seven orbital launch attempts of its Rocket 3 vehicle, the company binned that design. Martin and Flanagan have both been gone from Astra for nearly three years. In hindsight, the exchange offers a succinct and largely accurate summary of the US commercial launch industry’s wild ride during the last decade or so. Billions have been invested. We have heard wildly optimistic predictions for launch cadences—such as Astra’s preposterous goal of launching daily. Behind it all has been a crap-ton of hard work, sacrifice, and effort, with relatively little to show for it.

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