A Closer Look at Astra Space

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

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.

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.