ALAMEDA, Calif. (KRON) — Excited voices lowered to a hush as the countdown reached T-minus three minutes Monday afternoon. Inside an old naval warehouse in Alameda, Astra team members were gathered in front of large monitors showing their cutting-edge rocket ready to blastoff for the space company’s first orbital launch.
The rocket was positioned on a remote, snowy island in Kodiak, Alaska. The team had secretly built the small (38-foot-long) rocket and set up a mission control center on the same site where they were standing, a few miles outside of San Francisco.
After days of weather-related delays, Astra needed Monday’s operation to go as planned in order to win the U.S. military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Launch Challenge.
But with less than 1 minute until blastoff, an officer in the control room signaled a red light. The mission was scrubbed, the challenge lost, and Astra’s rocket saved for another day.
Mother Nature was not to be blamed this time around. Astra wrote about the last-minute decision, “Our team decided to hold the launch at T-53 seconds after a sensor reported unexpected data that could have impacted the success of the flight. Out of our commitment to safety, and to increase the probability of overall success of the three-launch campaign, we have decided to prioritize fully investigating the issue over attempting to win the DARPA challenge today.”
The DARPA Launch Challenge was to brainstorm a new way of rapidly building a rocket launch system that could launch a payload — in this case satellites — into the Earth’s orbit.
To win, a space company had to “do what no one has done before: launch payloads on extremely short notice, with no prior knowledge of the payloads, destination orbit or launch site and do it not just once, but twice, in a matter of days. The team received details of the first payload 30 days before transporting their rocket to the launch site, where they must complete a series of safety checkouts before the launch,” DARPA wrote.
DARPA is the military’s agency dedicated finding new technologies for national security. The agency said it uses “prized-based challenges to develop innovative solutions to some of the most difficult national security problems.”
For now, this challenge’s $12 million purse will go unclaimed.
“Winning the challenge would have been fantastic today, but our objective really is to reach orbit in as few flights as possible,” Astra CEO Chris Kemp said. “So, we really want to use this rocket and we want to get out there again when we know everything is perfect.”