Saturday Astra attempted their 5th test flight of one of their smallsat launchers from Kodiak Island, Alaska. While Astra’s Rocket 3.3 did not make it to space this time, it did give watchers a show when it slightly recovered after an engine failure.
After an aborted launch attempt Friday afternoon, Astra’s team worked to discover a solution that caused them to abort at T-0. After a solution was found, the company announced a new launch time Saturday.
Rocket 3.3’s launch down was far from perfect, but that is expected from a newer launch provider. It was finally settled on a 6:35 p.m. EDT launch time. The teams counted down and eventually, we saw the water deluge system turn on and the engines started up.
Things looked weird from the start. While Astra’s rocket was moving, it wasn’t moving upward; it was moving sideways. It first looked like it wouldn’t leave the pad as it might tip over but it continued sideways and eventually straightened up and continued upward.
The rocket continued for several minutes before the engines shut down just around the time of Max-Q, the time of highest stress on the rocket. The engines were shutdown as a termination command was sent to the rocket by the range. The vehicle then lost control and spun around.
In a post-launch media briefing, Astra confirmed thoughts that one of the five first-stage Dolphin engines shut down just after liftoff. Large amounts of debris were seen flying from the bottom of the rocket once it began moving from the pad and damage was seen near the engines from the onboard camera.
This would explain the tilting and lateral movement of the rocket shortly after liftoff due to lower than nominal thrust. While the failure is heartbreaking for those who have worked on the rocket, this new failure point if fixed will improve the reliability of the rocket for future missions.
Astra CEO Chris Kemp announced at the end of the stream that they will work with the FAA to begin an investigation into what caused Rocket 3.3’s engine failure.
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