No Winner in DARPA Launch Challenge

No Winner in DARPA Launch Challenge

The DARPA Launch Challenge came to an end today with no winner in its attempt to demonstrate fast, responsive launch.  The one team left in the competition, Astra, was not able to launch its rocket from Kodiak, Alaska due to a technical problem.  This was the last day in the prescribed window for it to place small satellites into orbit to win a $2 million prize.

Todd Master, DARPA’s program manager for the Launch Challenge, noted that Astra got close, but didn’t meet the mark. “They almost made it to the finish line” and “we were hoping to hand over a big check today,” he said, but that is not what happened.  Despite the disappointment, he hopes the challenge will “spur innovation” so DOD eventually can launch satellites on an as needed basis.

The launch window at the Pacific Spaceport Complex on Kodiak Island was open for three hours.  After an initial brief delay, the countdown proceeded to T-53 seconds when a hold was called by Astra’s guidance, navigation and control (GNC) officer after seeing unexpected data from the rocket.  The company has not disclosed what the data was, but said automated systems would have terminated the countdown if the GNC officer had not stopped it himself.

View from the Pacific Spaceport Complex on Kodiak Island, Alaska. Astra’s rocket, 1 of 3, is to the left of the building. Screengrab.

Astra worked the issue through most of the remaining time in the window, but finally scrubbed the launch.  Its co-founder and CEO Chris Kemp said they had been looking forward to winning the $2 million, but their goal is to get to orbit and they concluded they could not do it safely today.

In fact, Kemp and co-founder Adam London had reined in expectations during a press call on February 18, pointing out that although sections of the rocket had been tested, this would be the first time it was integrated.  They said in a blog post today that the rocket is named “1 of 3” because it is the first of a three-launch campaign to reach orbit.

The Launch Challenge was designed to demonstrate rapid, responsive launch by requiring two launches from different locations within a short period of time.  DOD is anxious to have a capability to launch satellites, even small ones, as needed.  This Astra rocket can only place 25 kilograms into a Sun Synchronous Orbit, but with today’s cubesats, that can provide at least some capability.   Four cubesats and a hosted payload were aboard the rocket today.  Since it did not get off the launch pad, the payloads will be returned to their owners, DOD and the University of South Florida.

Astra’s rocket, 1 of 3, at the Pacific Spaceport Complex, Kodiak, Alaska, March 2, 2020. The launch was scrubbed. Screengrab.

In addition to winning $2 million if it reached orbit today, Astra would have qualified to try for another $10 million by launching a second time within a few weeks.  With today’s scrub, however, the challenge comes to an end.  Master said DARPA would not try again.

Of the more than 50 teams that submitted applications to the Launch Challenge, 18 got through the first gate to participate, but only three got through two other steps including getting a launch license from the FAA.  Then two of the three withdrew:  Vector, which went out of business; and Vox, a subsidiary of Virgin Orbit, that decided to focus on its commercial business.  That left only Astra.

Kemp said his  company will work to find the root cause of the problem today and launch as soon as possible even though they are no longer competing to win cash.  Astra conducted two suborbital tests at Kodiak in 2018, though from a different launch pad, but both failed.


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