Inside Astra’s rocket factory, as the company prepares to go public

Inside Astra’s rocket factory, as the company prepares to go public

Astra VP of Manufacturing Bryson Gentile, left, and CEO Chris Kemp remove a protective cover from a rocket fairing half.

Michael Sheetz | CNBC

ALAMEDA, Calif .– Rocket maker Astra wants to streamline launch activities, the soon to be public company in an effort to lower manufacturing costs while dramatically increasing the number of launches at a daily rate.

Astra to go public by the end of June through a merger with SPAC Holicity, in a deal that will inject up to $ 500 million in capital into the company. In the meantime, Astra is expanding its headquarters in the San Francisco Bay Area as the company prepares for its next launch this summer.

A SPAC, or Special Purpose Acquisition Company, raises capital through an initial public offering and uses the proceeds to buy a private business and go public.

CNBC visited the growing Astra factory earlier this month, a visit joined by Chief Executive Officer Chris Kemp and Vice President of Manufacturing Bryson Gentile.

Benjamin Lyon, executive vice president of engineering, as well as senior vice president of plant engineering Pablo Gonzalez and vice president of communications Kati Dahm, were also in attendance.

The company’s leadership includes a variety of backgrounds from across space and technology: NASA’s Kemp and cloud software provider OpenStack, and SpaceX’s Gentile. Meanwhile, Lyon came from Apple, Gonzalez of You’re here, and Dahm of the electric vehicle manufacturer NIO.

An overview of the location of Astra’s corporate headquarters on the San Francisco Bay Area in Alameda, California.

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The Astra facility uses the residual infrastructure of the former US Navy Alameda Air Station. The business started with approximately 30,000 square feet. It now spans roughly 250,000 square feet of space, including down to the bay’s edge, where a newly constructed ferry terminal connects Alameda to downtown San Francisco, a 10-minute drive away.

The main area of ​​the company’s headquarters, about 25% of its footprint, has open space for much of its development and rocket assembly.

Astra has also put all of its equipment on wheels, with the company’s leadership emphasizing the flexibility it wants to maintain while expanding its production capabilities.

Astra’s head office production facility in Alameda, California.

Michael Sheetz | CNBC

Its short-term goal is to reach orbit, the next hurdle after its last launch crosses the space barrier in December. Astra’s next launch is slated for this summer, which will also be the first to generate revenue for the company.

Astra’s rocket is 40 feet tall and is capable of carrying up to 100 kilograms in low earth orbit – which places it in the small rocket category, a category currently run by Rocket Lab.

But Astra’s focus is on keeping the price of the rocket as low as possible, with prices as low as $ 2.5 million per launch compared to Rocket Lab’s Electron at around $ 7 million per launch.

Let’s take a closer look at the half of an Astra rocket nose, also known as a fairing.

Michael Sheetz | CNBC

The company emphasized the cost-cutting methods it implemented in its approach, with Astra believing that it is possible to achieve a production rate of one rocket per day in a few years. Company staff liken its rocket to building a small Cessna plane.

An example of what Astra showed on the tour was the way it builds its fairings – the nose of the rocket that protects the satellites during launch.

The company said the first fairing used was composite carbon fiber, which is typical of the space industry given the material’s lightness and stiffness. But the carbon fiber fairing cost $ 250,000, which requires a different solution since the company ultimately wants to bring the total cost of its rocket down to less than $ 500,000.

Astra chose to build its second metal fairing, which it costed around $ 130,000. However, the company needed to go further.

Vice President Gentile explained how the company now uses aluminum tubes to give strength to the fairing, combining them with a dozen petals, which are thin, curved pieces of metal. This reduced the cost of the fairings to $ 33,000.

Astra expects to make less than $ 10,000 per fairing, stamping it rather than riveting it together.

Astra’s management team gathered around a rocket in production, from right: VP of Manufacturing Bryson Gentile, SVP of Plant Engineering Dr Pablo Gonzalez, VP of Communications Kati Dahm, Founder and CEO Chris Kemp, Vice President of Engineering Benjamin Lyon.

Michael Sheetz | CNBC

Another long-term hurdle for the company will be working with regulators to quickly get licenses for launches if it is able to hit a daily rate. Astra’s management said they were working very closely with the Federal Aviation Administration on how to streamline the licensing process, and noted that they also wanted to have a dozen or more space ports around the world.

Astra Mission Control Center for launches.

Michael Sheetz | CNBC

Astra is also streamlining the operational side of its launches, reducing the number of people involved in its mission control to less than 10 and only needing six people to set up the rocket at the physical launch site.

Its objective is to reduce the number of people in mission control to two, effectively a pilot and a co-pilot, by automating most of its processes.

Astra’s outer working yard, where pieces of its rocket ground support equipment are assembled and prepared for launches.

Michael Sheetz | CNBC

Its rocket system, including the bastion that lifts the vehicle vertically for a launch, all packaged in a few shipping containers.

First, Astra rolls a solid out of the container and into the factory. Then, an overhead crane drops the rocket directly onto the bastion. Finally, the whole system is rolled up in a container and then shipped.

Astra has three strengths in assembly, with more to come.

The thick doors that lead to one of Astra’s rocket engine test bays, which was previously a US Navy engine test facility.

Michael Sheetz | CNBC

The old naval facility also includes two engine test areas, with thick reinforced concrete walls.

The day before the CNBC tour, Astra performed tests on the top stage of a rocket. This made the engine bay a cool place to visit, thanks to sub-zero temperatures from a liquid oxygen tank.

Inside an Astra test bunker, where senior manager Andrew Pratt shows a pair of fuel tanks connected to a rocket ahead of the previous night’s testing.

Michael Sheetz | CNBC

In a hot shot test, when one of Astra’s Delphin rocket engines is ignited, the interior of the chambers reached 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit. Astra representatives said the company can perform up to 10 to 15 tests of the first stage of a rocket in a day, or more than 30 tests of the upper stage per day.

Looking back into the Astra Test Bay exhaust tunnel.

Michael Sheetz | CNBC

Astra will continue to expand its current footprint in Alameda, including a lease for a 500-foot jetty and plans for an ocean launch pad that it could load with a rocket into the bay.

The view behind Astra’s corporate headquarters in Alameda, California, overlooking the San Francisco Bay.

Michael Sheetz | CNBC

Astra CEO Chris Kemp shows part of the area the company plans to use to expand its headquarters.

Michael Sheetz | CNBC

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