Astra is Running a Different Kind of Space Race

Astra, Darpa’s rocket startup of choice, is preparing to launch satellites into orbit in record time

Going fast in the aerospace business is a rarity and doesn’t usually work out so well. But the U.S. government has made speedy rocket launches something of a national priority, and Astra stands as a Department of Defense darling right now. The Pentagon’s R&D arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or Darpa, made Astra one of three finalists in a contest called the Launch Challenge. The terms: Whichever startup could send two rockets from different locations with different payloads within a few weeks of each other would win $12 million.

The company’s founders say they want to be the FedEx Corp. of space. They’re aiming to create small, cheap rockets that can be mass-produced to facilitate daily spaceflights, delivering satellites into low-Earth orbit for as little as $1 million per launch. If Astra’s planned Kodiak flight succeeds on Feb. 21, it will have put a rocket into orbit at a record-setting pace. Chief Executive Officer Chris Kemp says he’s focused less on this particular launch than on the logistics of creating many more rockets. “We have taken a much broader look at how we scale the business,” he says.

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