by Douglas Messier
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|
|Development & Flight-testing High-performance Electric Pump-fed Launch Vehicle||NASA||6/13/17 – 12/14/18||$920,877 (out of $2.0 million)|
|Pump and Electric Motor||NASA||3/30/17 – 12/24/17||$969,775|
|Electric Pump Fed Propulsion for a Liquid Bipropellant Mars Ascent Vehicle||NASA||6/1/16 – 12/9/16||$124,586|
|Affordable, Small-Class Launch Vehicle Work||NASA||5/3/16 – 3/5/17||$949,395|
|Electric Pump-fed LOX/RP Engine||NASA||1/30/15 – 3/31/16||$125,000|
|High-Performance, Pump-Fed Propulsion for Mars Ascent Vehicle Applications||NASA||5/29/15 – 12/17/15||$124,746|
|Small-Scale, Methane-Fueled Reaction Control Engines for In-Space Propulsion||NASA||5/28/15 – 12/17/15||$124,909|
|Low-Cost and High-Performance Propulsion for Small Satellite Applications||NASA||6/2/14 – 12/19/14||$124,552|
|On-Board Pressurization Systems for Sample Return Missions||NASA||5/28/14 – 12/19/14||$124,931|
|A High Performance, Electric Pump-fed LOX/RP Propulsion System||NASA||4/17/14 – 3/31/16||$1,089,516|
|Regeneratively-Cooled, Pump-Fed Propulsion Technology for Nano / Micro Satellite Launch Vehicles||NASA||5/22/13 – 11/23/13||$199,477|
|Launch Vehicle for Dedicated Orbital Launch of Small-scale Payloads||DOD – Air Force Research Laboratory||9/13/12 – 6/30/16||$7,081,190|
|High-performance, Pump-fed Upper Stage for Nano-launch Vehicle||DOD – DARPA||4/2/12 – 10/2/13||$969,396|
|A LOX-Cooled, Pump-Fed Rocket Engine for Sample Return Applications||NASA||2/13/12 – 8/13/12||$124,481|
|A High-Payload Fraction, Pump-Fed, 2-Stage Nano Launch Vehicle||NASA||2/13/12 – 8/13/12||$124,550|
|High-Performance, Pump-Fed Propulsion for Missile Defense Interceptors||DOD — Missile Defense Agency||1/12/12 – 7/31/12||$99,873|
|Regeneratively-Cooled, Turbopump-Fed, Small-Scale Cryogenic Rocket Engines||NASA||6/1/11 – 5/31/13||$599,679|
|Low-Cost and Light-Weight Transpiration-Cooled Thrust Chambers||NASA||2/17/11 – 12/3/11||$99,437|
|High Performance Micro Rocket Stages for Tactical & Space Applications||DOD — U.S. Army Contracting Command||8/25/10 – 11/30/12||$2,883,860|
|Regeneratively-cooled, Turbopump-fed LOX/Methane Lunar Ascent Engines||NASA||1/26/10 – 7/29/10||$99,186|
|Small, Light-Weight Pump Technology for On-Board Pressurization of Propellants in a Mars Ascent Vehicle||NASA||12/28/09 – 12/27/11||$598,832|
|High Performance Micro Rocket Stages for Tactical & Space Applications||DOD – DARPA||8/12/09 – 3/19/10||$98,666|
|High T/W, Low TSFC Propulsion System for PAV Applications||DOD – DARPA||7/1/09 – 3/10/10||$98,584|
|Small, Light-Weight Pump Technologies for Mars Ascent Vehicles||NASA||1/9/09 – 7/22/09||$99,728|
|Nanosat Propulsion||NASA||8/1/08 – 6/26/09||$303,000|
|Metal-foil Micro-rockets||DOD – DARPA||5/27/08 – 1/27/11||$749,233|
|Silicon-Based Chemical Micro-Thrusters for Nano and Pico Satellite Applications||DOD — U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory||10/11/07 – 6/30/08||$99,849|
|Seeding R&D||DOD – DARPA||5/10/07 – 6/30/08||$580,984|
|Unspecified Research||DOD – DARPA||1/18/07 – 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.