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 missile fairing half.

Michael Sheetz | CNBC

ALAMEDA, Calif. – Astra missile maker wants to simplify the launch business. The soon-to-be-listed company aims to both reduce manufacturing costs and drastically increase the number of starts on a daily rate.

Astra is preparing to go public by the end of June through a merger with SPAC Holicity, which will bring up to $ 500 million in capital to the company. Meanwhile, Astra is expanding its headquarters in San Francisco Bay as the company prepares for its next launch this summer.

A SPAC, or special purpose vehicle, acquires capital from an IPO and uses the proceeds to buy a private company and bring it public.

CNBC toured Astra’s growing facility earlier this month, which was attended by Chairman and CEO Chris Kemp and Vice President of Manufacturing Bryson Gentile.

Benjamin Lyon, Executive Vice President of Engineering, as well as Senior Vice President of Factory Engineering Pablo Gonzalez and Vice President of Communications Kati Dahm also attended.

The company’s management comes from a variety of backgrounds in space and technology: Kemp from NASA and cloud software provider OpenStack, and Gentile from SpaceX. Meanwhile, Lyon came from Apple, Gonzalez from Tesla and Dahm from the electric vehicle manufacturer NIO.

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

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The Astra facility uses the infrastructure left over from the former Air Station Alameda of the US Navy. The company initially started with around 30,000 square meters. It now spans around 250,000 square feet – including all the way to the edge of the bay, where a newly built city ferry terminal connects Alameda with the 10-minute drive from downtown San Francisco.

The main area of ​​the company’s headquarters, approximately 25% of its floor space, provides open space for much of its missile development and assembly.

Astra has also put all of its equipment on wheels, with management emphasizing the flexibility it wants to maintain in expanding its manufacturing capabilities.

The production floor of the Astra headquarters in Alameda, California.

Michael Sheetz | CNBC

The short-term goal is to reach orbit, the next hurdle after the last launch that broke the barrier to space in December. The next launch of Astra is planned for this summer, which will also be the first to generate revenue for the company.

Astra’s rocket is 40 feet high and can launch up to 100 kilograms into orbit. This makes it part of the small rocket category currently led by Rocket Lab.

However, Astra is focused on keeping the price of the rocket as low as possible. It’s priced at just $ 2.5 million per launch versus Rocket Labs Electron’s roughly $ 7 million per launch.

A closer look at half an Astra missile nose cone, also known as a fairing.

Michael Sheetz | CNBC

The company emphasized the cost-cutting methods implemented in its approach, with Astra believing that it is possible to achieve a production rate of one rocket per day within a few years. The company’s employees compare their rocket to building a small Cessna airplane.

An example of Astra demonstrating during the tour how to build fairings – the nose cone of the rocket that protects the satellites during launch.

The company said the first cladding was made of composite carbon fiber, which is typical in the aerospace industry because the material is light and stiff. However, the carbon fiber fairing cost $ 250,000, which required a different solution as the company ultimately wants to bring the total cost of its rocket down to less than $ 500,000.

Astra decided to build its second metal fairing, which cost about $ 130,000. However, the company had to go further.

Vice President Gentile explained how the company is now using aluminum tubing to give the cladding its strength, combining that with a dozen petals, which are thin, curved pieces of metal. That reduces the cost of the fairings to $ 33,000.

Astra plans to get under $ 10,000 per disguise by stamping them instead of riveting them together.

Members of the Astra management team gathered from the right around a rocket in production: Vice President of Production Bryson Gentile, SVP of the factory engineer Dr. Pablo Gonzalez, Vice President of Communication Kati Dahm, Founder and CEO Chris Kemp, EPP of the engineer Benjamin Lyon.

Michael Sheetz | CNBC

Another long-term hurdle for the company will be to work with regulators to get licenses for launches quickly if it is able to hit a daily rate. Astra’s leadership said they are working very closely with the Federal Aviation Administration to streamline the licensing process, noting that they want a dozen or more spaceports around the world.

Astras Mission Control Center for launches.

Michael Sheetz | CNBC

Astra is also optimizing the operational aspect of its launches, reducing the number of people in its mission control to less than 10 and requiring only six people to set up the missile at the physical launch site.

The aim is to reduce the number of people in mission control to just two, effectively a pilot and a co-pilot, by automating most of the processes.

Astra’s outdoor workstation, where pieces of missile ground support equipment are assembled and prepared for launch.

Michael Sheetz | CNBC

The missile system, including the strong back that lifts the vehicle vertically for a launch, is packed in a few shipping containers.

First, Astra rolls a strong back out of the container and into the factory. Then an overhead crane drops the missile directly onto the strongback. Finally, the entire system is rolled into a container and then shipped.

Astra has three strong backs in assembly, more will follow.

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

Michael Sheetz | CNBC

The former marine facility also has two engine test areas with thick reinforced concrete walls.

The night before the CNBC tour, Astra conducted tests on the top tier of a missile. This made the engine bay a cool place thanks to the sub-zero temperatures of a liquid oxygen tank.

In an Astra test bunker where Senior Manager Andrew Pratt shows a pair of fuel tanks connected to a missile that was tested the night before.

Michael Sheetz | CNBC

During a hot fire test, the interior of the chambers reaches 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit when one of Astra’s Dolphin rocket engines is ignited. Astra officials said the company can run up to 10 to 15 first stage tests of a missile in a day, or more than 30 upper stage tests in a day.

Review of the exhaust tunnel of the test bay from Astra.

Michael Sheetz | CNBC

Astra will continue to expand its current presence in Alameda, including a lease for a 500-foot pier and plans for an ocean launch platform that can be loaded with a rocket in the bay.

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

Michael Sheetz | CNBC

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

Michael Sheetz | CNBC

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