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Astra’s 100-year plan: Q&A with CEO Chris Kemp

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In February 2020, Astra was just starting to open up to the public. The small launch vehicle developer, which had kept a profile so low that it called itself “Stealth Space Company” in job listings, began talking to the media about its plans as it was preparing its first orbital launch attempt from Kodiak, Alaska, as part of the DARPA Launch Challenge.

A year later, Astra was going public. The company announced Feb. 2 it would merge with Holicity, a special-purpose acquisition company (SPAC) founded by Craig McCaw, who a quarter-century ago led Teledesic, the failed broadband satellite constellation. That merger, along with additional investment, will provide Astra with nearly $500 million in cash and value the company at $2.1 billion, with its shares traded on the Nasdaq exchange. Astra will use the funding to scale up production of its rockets, with a goal of launching nearly daily by 2025, and start a new line of modular satellite platforms.

Chris Kemp, chief executive and co-founder of Astra. Credit: Astra

Chris Kemp, chief executive and co-founder of Astra, spoke with SpaceNews senior staff writer Jeff Foust a few days after the announcement, discussing the merger, Astra’s plans for ramping up launch activity and how it will compete against both small and large launch providers. The following is a condensed version of that conversation.

Why did you choose to merge with a SPAC rather than a traditional IPO or raising another round?

We’re offering a cheaper, more efficient and less risky way for companies to get to space at Astra. So, it’s natural that we would take a cheaper, more efficient and less risky way to get to public markets. I think a SPAC, for us, was by far the most efficient path to public markets.

And how did you choose Holicity?

From our perspective, there couldn’t be better partners out there for us. As we looked at the options in front of us, we got really excited about the background that Craig and the other folks had going back to the Teledesic days. They had a lot of pain that they felt trying to pioneer the first low Earth orbit communications constellation decades before Starlink. Launch was a big factor that scuttled their dreams.

We’ve all seen what SpaceX has done solving that problem. We think there’s another opportunity that is very different, which is the hundreds of companies that are trying to solve a number of very important problems here on Earth from space, and we’re building a platform to address everything else. We believe fundamentally that small launches from anywhere on Earth anywhere in space means we can serve that market better.

What is McCaw providing Astra besides the capital from the merger?

He’s been very actively involved. They’re not passive. He has participated in many calls we’ve had with investors and he’s joining my board. He’s someone who I am really looking forward to learning from and working with, as we build this company.

On your last launch in December you nearly reached orbit. What are your plans for your next launch?

There was a really careful look at everything from that flight. The fuel mixture was a bit off and changing the mixture would have easily put that payload in orbit. The same flight from a different spaceport or sent to a different orbit would have reached orbit. So, the system completely proved itself, and we will adjust the mixture ratio on the fuel. I think the next fight will be a commercial flight this summer with a payload on it. We’re ramping up our commercial launch operations this year. We’ll have monthly launches, starting in the fourth quarter.

Will you make any changes to the rocket besides the fuel ratio?

No changes. We’re ramping up production on this rocket. It’ll be called Rocket 3.3. And we’ll make lots of 3.3’s. There will be some little updates here and there, but it is exactly the same rocket configuration — engine, software, hardware — with minor enhancements, things that you’d want to do if you’re going to make lots of them.

What about performance improvements?

The team will start working on a rocket that can carry about 100 kilograms next year, after this gets handed off to production. There’s a whole roadmap that talks about effectively moving to about 300 kilograms to a 500 kilometer sun-synchronous reference orbit by 2023. In 2025, we hope to be hitting our daily launch cadence with a vehicle that can throw about 300 kilograms to a reference orbit. Ultimately, that means we can meet the needs of all these megaconstellations like Kuiper. The target for the company is being a megaconstellation provider.

The conventional wisdom for megaconstellations is that you launch them in bulk on larger rockets, then use smaller vehicles for individual replacements. Can Astra compete with larger rockets on a cost-per-kilogram basis?

It’s really not the right strategy for any megaconstellation to have a single launch provider. All these companies, with the exception of SpaceX that owns their launch capability, will probably select two or three different providers, so they’re not locked in. But that leaves a remainder problem because the number of satellites that you can put on different rockets varies. Astra fills an important need, where we can fill in those gaps. You can get a batch of them where they need to go on a large rocket, and then you can fill in the remainder with Astra.

How does Astra stack up against the competition, be it other small launch vehicle companies or larger ones like SpaceX?

We’ve done everything fast. We achieved this big milestone in December I think twice as fast as SpaceX and three times faster than Rocket Lab and Virgin Orbit. We’ve already sold 50 launches. There’s so much demand and so many opportunities out there that we had to capitalize the business, to build the infrastructure to go and ramp up our launch rate and our production rate.

One thing these customers all have in common is they all want to go to different places, on different schedules. That’s not possible with the SpaceX [rideshare] launch. That launch might have gotten a bunch of small satellites into one place in space, but those companies had to wait a very long time for that launch.

It’s kind of like Airbus 380s versus small commuter jets. It’s never going to make sense to fly an Airbus 380 to Sacramento. You’re going to want to fly a small Embraer jet. So we’re doing the commuter jet, we’re filling in all the gaps. That’s, I think, a rising tide that will float all rocket ships, whether they’re big or small.

How are you planning to scale up production to reach that daily launch cadence?

We were producing about a rocket a quarter last year. We don’t intend to do more than that this year, because we’ll be investing this capital to scale the factory and really build the team out to start really preparing for monthly launch operations next year. We’ll be building out this quarter of a million square foot space, where we built about 100,000 square feet so far. We’re going to start construction in a few weeks and will be bringing in a whole bunch of new infrastructure to start scaling up production.

What approaches are you using to increase production?

It’s not like we’re making a handcrafted machine. We’re using aluminum. We can really manufacture these things at rate without a lot of labor and without a lot of custom machinery. It’s welding, it’s riveting. There’ll be robots. It will be a pretty lean factory operation. Yes, it’s less efficient than a carbon fiber rocket, but our goal as a company was never to make the most efficient rocket. It was to make the highest margin, most profitable company at scale. That’s what separates Astra from everyone else.

In addition to rockets, you revealed in the merger announcement that you’re also developing a satellite bus that can carry customer payloads. Was that something you were planning all along?

It has been but it hasn’t been something we’ve talked about. We didn’t want to talk about it until we achieved this first milestone of reaching space with something that could deliver satellites. Now that we’ve got this milestone behind us, we’re opening up a little bit more about the long-term plan for the company. In fact, one of the things I’m working on now is the 100-year plan for the company. We’re really focused on this trillion-dollar economy that is largely focused on improving life on Earth from space, not going off Earth and settling other planets.

If you think about every company that has ever started in this industry, they have to build the satellites from scratch, or they’re using this cottage industry of companies that integrate them. We see a model that’s much more like Apple or Dell, where customers just load software and they plug in a peripheral. And the peripheral is the camera, the sensor, the radio that is unique to their application. I think there’s a unique opportunity for us to completely turn the industry on its head by thinking about how we prioritize what’s actually happening in space versus the structural mechanics of how this industry has operated for many, many decades.

When will you start launching those satellites?

We’re going to start building the capability to make them this year. Next year we’ll start flying the first prototypes. The following year, we’ll really start to productize and start providing space services to our customers. The satellite will fit inside of our rocket and be really beautifully designed to use every bit of space and mass available in the rocket.

You’re talking about doing 300 launches a year in 2025, which would be nearly three times the number of launches worldwide last year. How are you going to scale up operations to support that unprecedented pace?

We need to have a high level of automation, so at the foundation of our platform is software. We had at our first launch of 1.0 about 30 people in Kodiak. In our 2.0 launch, we had about 15 people. In our 3.0 launches, we got it down to five. We now can take the entire spaceport, as we demonstrated with the DARPA Launch Challenge, pack it up into four shipping containers, unpack it, and launch the rocket with five people.

We’re never going to go to a government spaceport. You’ll never see us build at Wallops or Cape Canaveral. We don’t want to be anywhere near those places. We want to deal with the FAA and they do a great job for us. I disagree with Elon [Musk] on this. I think that is a great group that’s been incredibly responsive. We want to have an environment where we can operate under their regulatory framework. It’s way easier than operating from the Cape or from Vandenberg.

Have you identified any spaceports you’ll go to next after Kodiak?

Yes, absolutely. We have engaged with several.

You mentioned you’re working on a 100-year plan for Astra. What does a 100-year plan for a rocket company look like?

If you look back at the Earth 50 years from now, or 100 years from now, there is a layer right above our atmosphere helping improve life on Earth. It’s an intelligent dust of connectivity that provides a level of capability here on the planet to better understand our resources, like really incredible, high-fidelity weather forecasting. Where are we hurting our coral reefs? What’s happening with methane?

I cannot believe 100 years from now, looking back at Earth, there isn’t this beautiful protective sphere. And you can call that Astra. So, we’re building that. How do you build that? Is that a monopoly? No, it’s a platform, and that platform will be driven by standards and competition and global collaboration. Astra is building that platform, but it’s going to take decades. This transaction gives us the resources we need to begin that journey.

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 15, 2021 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

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Source: https://spacenews.com/astras-100-year-plan-qa-with-ceo-chris-kemp/

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Virgin Galactic unveils new spaceship for its growing fleet

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Virgin Galactic has unveiled the company’s first SpaceShip III in its growing fleet, VSS Imagine.

The spaceship showcases Virgin Galactic’s innovation in design and astronaut experience. Imagine also demonstrates progress toward efficient design and production, as Virgin Galactic works to scale the business for the long-term.

VSS Imagine will commence ground testing, with glide flights planned for this summer from Spaceport America in New Mexico.

The livery design, finished entirely with a mirror-like material, reflects the surrounding environment, constantly changing colour and appearance as it travels from earth to sky to space.

Leveraging a modular design, the SpaceShip III class of vehicles are built to enable improved performance in terms of maintenance access and flight rate. This third generation of spaceship will lay the foundation for the design and manufacture of future vehicles.

As VSS Imagine begins ground testing, manufacturing will progress on VSS Inspire, the second SpaceShip III vehicle within the Virgin Galactic fleet. The introduction of the SpaceShip III class of vehicles is an important milestone in Virgin Galactic’s multi-year effort that targets flying 400 flights per year, per spaceport.

VSS Imagine is unveiled ahead of VSS Unity’s next test flight, which is planned for May 2021.

Michael Colglazier, CEO of Virgin Galactic, commented: “Today we unveiled our SpaceShip III class of vehicles, marking the beginning of the Virgin Galactic fleet. VSS Imagine and Inspire are stunning ships that will take our future astronauts on an incredible voyage to space, and their names reflect the aspirational nature of human spaceflight. Congratulations to our dedicated team who worked so brilliantly to achieve this milestone.”

Richard Branson, founder of Virgin, added: “Virgin Galactic spaceships are built specifically to deliver a new, transforming perspective to the thousands of people who will soon be able to experience the wonder of space for themselves. As a SpaceShip III class of vehicle, Imagine is not just beautiful to look at, but represents Virgin Galactic’s growing fleet of spaceships. All great achievements, creations and changes start with an idea. Our hope is for all those who travel to space to return with fresh perspectives and new ideas that will bring positive change to our planet.”

www.virgingalactic.com

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Source: https://www.aero-mag.com/virgin-galactic-unveils-new-spaceship-for-its-growing-fleet/

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Hexcel joins ASCEND project

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Hexcel joins ASCEND project

Hexcel has announced its role within the recently launched UK-based project called ASCEND (Aerospace and Automotive Supply Chain Enabled Development) that will focus on developing high-rate manufacturing and processing technologies that will accelerate the development of new, lightweight advanced composite materials.

The composites company will join lead partner GKN Aerospace and 13 other project stakeholders in a collaboration across the UK supply chain to develop the technologies and automation equipment required to manufacture lightweight, more fuel-efficient structures for sustainable air mobility, aerospace, and automotive industries.

Hexcel will contribute to the ASCEND project framework, developing a new HexPly fast cure prepreg system that will significantly reduce component processing times compared to existing aerospace prepregs.

In addition to its new fast curing prepreg technology, Hexcel’s range of Liquid Composite Moulding (LCM) products will be incorporated into the ASCEND project work packages. The project will use both HiTape advanced unidirectional dry carbon reinforcements and HiMax multiaxial non-crimp fabrics reinforcements.

The ASCEND project will allow Hexcel to collaborate with Tier 1 companies, engineers, tooling specialists, and production equipment OEMs to deliver both prepreg and liquid composite moulding solutions that meet both the performance targets and satisfy the processing requirements for high-rate automated manufacture.

The technical integration enabled by the ASCEND project partnerships will ensure a complete understanding of customer performance and processing needs, coupled with the opportunity to industrialize new technologies utilizing the extensive capabilities of GKN’s Global Technology Centre in Bristol.

Paul Mackenzie, senior vice president and chief technology officer at Hexcel, said “We are  proud to be part of the ASCEND program, and we look forward to working with other leading companies as we develop processes and materials that help to make the next generation of sustainable air mobility, aerospace, and automotive vehicles possible. This project offers the perfect platform for Hexcel to collaborate and further develop our HexPly, HiMax, and HiTape technologies.”

The ASCEND partners working alongside Hexcel include Assyst Bulmer, Airborne, Cobham Mission Systems Wimborne, Cygnet Texkimp, DES Composites, FAR-UK, Hive Composites, LMAT, Loop Technology, McLaren Automotive, The National Composites Centre, Solvay Composite Technologies, Rafinex, and Sigmatex (UK).

Together, the group looks forward to delivering the material and automation innovations that will power more sustainable mobility solutions of the future.

www.hexcel.com

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Boeing Commercial Airplanes extends landing gear kits contract with Magellan

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Boeing Commercial Airplanes division has extended its component supply contract with Canada-based supplier Magellan Aerospace.

Under this long-term contract, Magellan will continue to supply landing gear kits and structural components for Boeing platforms such as the 737, 767, and 777.

The contract extension also shows that Magellan meets Boeing Commercial Airplanes’ cost, quality and performance requirements.

Magellan business development, marketing and contract vice-president Haydn Martin said: “Securing this major business extension for key Boeing platforms is foundational for our New York and Kitchener facilities as the aerospace industry works to recover from the impact of the global pandemic.

“The confidence that Boeing has placed in Magellan is significant and demonstrates our ability to offer our customers comprehensive and reliable solutions.”

For Boeing, the company is using a vertical integration strategy that leverages global resources in Ontario, New York City, and India.

It has also made significant investments across all its facilities regarding manufacturing technology and the workforce to enhance its competitiveness worldwide.

Magellan will deliver these kits and hardware from its facilities in Kitchener, Ontario and New York City, New York. The company will also produce an extra supply of kits to reduce production risk.

Deliveries will be made directly to Boeing’s assembly facilities in Renton and Everett, Washington, US.

Last month, Magellan signed a five-year renewal agreement with Avio Aero to supply magnesium and aluminium castings.

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Source: https://www.aerospace-technology.com/news/boeing-commercial-aircraft-magellan/

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ZeroAvia raises new funding for hydrogen-electric engine development

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Zero-emission aviation firm ZeroAvia has raised $24.3m in new funding to support the development of a 2MW hydrogen-electric engine.

Hong Kong-based venture capital firm Horizons Ventures, an existing investor, led the latest funding round and was joined by new investor British Airways.

Other investors, including Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Ecosystem Integrity Fund, Summa Equity, Shell Ventures, and SYSTEMIQ, also joined the financing.

The financing takes the company’s total private investment to more than $53m while the total funding raised is close to $74m since its formation.

ZeroAvia’s funding comes a few months after the UK Government, through the Department for Business Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI), and Innovate UK, announced a $16.3m (£12.3m) grant to deliver a 19-seat hydrogen-electric powered aircraft in the market by 2023.

The new funding will accelerate the hydrogen-electric powertrain development for a ten to 20-seater regional aircraft.

ZeroAvia aims to commercialise the engine as early as 2024. The company aims to enter the more than 50-seater commercial aircraft segment by 2026.

The funding will also de-risk the company ambition to power a 100-seat single-aisle aircraft by 2030.

ZeroAvia CEO and founder Val Miftakhov said: “This new funding, in conjunction with our other recent milestones, will significantly accelerate our path to zero-emission solutions for larger regional aircraft at a commercial scale.

“With many airlines lining up and ready to make the shift to zero-emissions, we expect to see wide-scale adoption of this technology.”

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Source: https://www.aerospace-technology.com/news/zeroavia-electric-raising-funds/

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