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This Monday DARPA’s Launch Challenge ended without a successful space launch. The only Launch Challenge participant – Astra – cancelled its launch with less than a minute left in the countdown before liftoff. Astra faced technical and weather-related issues during the roughly two-week window of the Challenge campaign, which ran February 17 to March 2 in Kodiak, Alaska.

Meeting DARPA’s timeline to demonstrate a flexible, responsive launch capability has been too challenging. Currently, space launch is a process that begins years in advance, and it relies on complex, expensive, and one-of-a-kind, fixed infrastructure. In 2018, DARPA challenged the space industry to do what no one has done before: launch payloads to orbit on extremely short notice, with no prior knowledge of the payloads, destination orbit or launch location, and do it not just once, but twice, in a matter of days from an austere launch pad.

Eighteen teams pre-qualified for the Challenge in 2018, and for the final event, three teams were selected, including Virgin Orbit, Vector Space, and Astra, which had been operating in stealth mode till February of this year. Virgin Orbit ultimately decided not to participate in the Challenge in order to focus on other commercial pursuits, and Vector ran into financial trouble late last year and closed business.

“In roughly two weeks, Astra moved their entire rocket and launch infrastructure from their facilities in Alameda, California, to Kodiak, Alaska, and the team set up all the equipment required to launch on a simple concrete launch pad and integrate a previously undisclosed set of payloads,” said Todd Master, DARPA Launch Challenge program manager. “Flexible and responsive launch is critical for the Defense Department and its desire for space resilience, and the Challenge has advanced the growth of what is now a more capable launch marketplace to meet those needs than what we saw just two years ago.”

Dorothee Frank