The Bay Area is home to sports teams, restaurants, museums, and all the other wonders you’d expect to find in a world-class urban area. But a space rocket company? That impossible thought was running through Alta Journal editor and publisher Will Hearst’s mind when he recently visited the former naval station on Alameda Island. Yet there it was: a sprawling 15-acre campus that included a 250,000-square-foot factory, engine-testing facilities, storage tanks for gases and liquids, and overseas shipping containers presumably filled with materials and parts for space travel. Near the testing area, a gleaming silver-and-white rocket stood silhouetted against the San Francisco skyline across the bay.
The spacecraft had been made by a company named Astra (disclosure: Hearst was an early investor in the company). The rocket was diminutive compared with SpaceX’s 229-foot, 1.2-million-pound Falcon 9s or NASA’s 363-foot, 6.1-million-pound Saturn Vs. Astra’s lithe missiles stand about 40 feet tall and, according to one report, weigh approximately 20,000 pounds. Yet the small stature of the company’s rockets does not reflect a smallness of ambition. The opposite is true. A Falcon 9 can carry payloads of up to 50,000 pounds to low Earth orbit; the current Astra model is designed to take payloads of up to 330 pounds to low Earth orbit. In practice, the Falcon 9 is the equivalent of a giant tanker ship moving a large amount of cargo; the Astra rocket aims to be a FedEx truck delivering packages to space—think compact satellites to monitor weather systems, track deforestation, and measure climate change. Further, while Astra’s rockets are made in Alameda, they’re designed to be transported on flatbed trucks and reassembled for launch from mobile sites.
In March, Astra’s ninth-ever rocket—Launch Vehicle 0009—blasted off from the Pacific Spaceport on Alaska’s Kodiak Island and successfully delivered a commercial payload to orbit. The milestone came five and a half years after the company’s founding and the usual number of successes and setbacks that prove the adage “Space is hard.”
Astra is led by founder and CEO Chris Kemp, a former CTO of NASA and a cofounder of OpenStack, an open-source operating system for cloud computing. In July 2021, Astra merged with Holicity, a special purpose acquisition company, and became publicly listed on NASDAQ. Hearst caught up with Kemp to discuss the growing number of space start-ups in California and how they’re reshaping this most-skyward-looking of industries.
This article appears in the Summer 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
WILL HEARST: I remember visiting this site when it was part of Naval Air Station Alameda. Later, I recall coming to a single lonely hangar that served as the home of your company while it was in stealth mode. Since then, you’ve gone public and you’ve got a whole campus. Had you planned to grow into this location?
CHRIS KEMP: When we started in San Francisco, we had a small garage in the Mission, and it was pretty clear that we would soon need more space not only to manufacture rockets but also to do testing of the engines and development. The more we could bring all that together onto one site, the less our team would have to travel to different remote locations.
So we started talking to the mayor of Alameda, and the old naval air station was an ideal location for Astra because there were so many existing buildings that were probably going to be torn down. We could take these old historic buildings and renovate them and use them at a fraction of the cost of building new facilities.
We were able to take about 15 acres of buildings and land here. And over the last five years, we’ve taken the facilities that used to test jet engines, and now they allow us to test rocket engines.
As a visitor, you don’t expect to see Cape Canaveral, or NASA, in the middle of the urban San Francisco Bay Area. We know Silicon Valley is nearby, but the idea that there’s a space manufacturing company here is quite a surprise.
We read about people like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, but they’re building really big rockets for manned spaceflight, to go to Mars, for space tourism, and you’re doing something quite different. There is a new entrepreneurial space movement, much of it happening here in the Bay Area. Companies like Astra and Planet Labs, the low-cost satellite manufacturer, are part of this wave. You guys are the personal computers, and they’re the mainframes.
Yeah. I think if you look at the innovation that’s happened in Silicon Valley, it’s around what you can do with personal technology, mobile technology, wireless technology. And what we’ve seen over the past 25 years is platforms like the iPhone take an incredible amount of power—sensors, cameras, radios—and pack it into devices you can put in your pocket. That same technology is now being put into space by companies like Planet and Astra. We’ve got dozens of companies here in the Bay Area alone.
We need a new name for this phenomenon.
Space tech. And it’s largely based here in the Bay Area, which is exciting.
This is not the first time you’ve been an entrepreneur. You could have drawn the idea for Astra on a whiteboard, and it would have been an impressive presentation. But this is an actual company with hundreds of people working here. Can you talk about what made you confident that you could pull it off, and what is the secret sauce you used to succeed?
I think that a lot of space companies historically have focused on technology, right? There are a lot of companies that look like labs, and they’re really focused on designing technology for technology’s sake. I learned in Silicon Valley that you have to be focused on customers and you have to build products that customers want.
When we started Astra, we started by asking: What is the big problem to be solved here? The answer was access to space, because you already had companies like Planet struggling to get satellites into orbit.
It was clear that companies like SpaceX were designing bigger and bigger rockets. They have plans to go to Mars and create a multiplanetary species, but a giant starship is not a product-market fit with these small tech companies that have a specific payload that they want in a specific orbit on a specific schedule. It’s like a FedEx. Could you do Amazon without the ability to do home delivery? No. A Maersk container ship does not enable a business like Amazon.
So Astra started by focusing on this first problem, which is enabling our customers to get to space at a fraction of the cost of these giant rockets. The next phase of our business is in building a space platform. I learned in Silicon Valley the value is in solving problems that create end-user value.
Take Planet as an example. They’re helping us understand troop movements in Ukraine. They’re helping farmers understand where to direct water. They’re solving real problems in the real world.
Astra solves the launch problem, and that’s a critical part of the picture, but people still have to build satellites. They still have to operate constellations. Our plan was to build space services which are part of the stack, create a platform that will dovetail with, and enable the sensor companies.
If you think about rockets as the delivery trucks, and if you think about the platform we’re building as enabling this next generation of entrepreneurs, then we will dramatically accelerate their ability to put sensors and software in space.
When we went public, we didn’t say, “We’re a rocket company.” We said, “We’re building a space platform,” and our long game was space services.
To make the business work, you have to achieve volume. So what kind of volume are you aiming for? You mentioned going for a rocket a month, one a week. What repeatability volume do you need?
When we started Astra, we felt that the market would support a launch a day. This was our mantra: daily space delivery.
A kind of holy grail.
If you want to build towards that, you have to think about scale. That’s why we’re hiring folks who built car factories. Because if we think about building a rocket a month, that’s not a very high volume.
So you’re more inspired by automobile makers like Tesla than by NASA?
If you think about a rocket, it’s roughly the same size as a Cessna. And if you think about a Cessna, it’s made mostly out of aluminum. Our rocket is made out of aluminum too. The Cessna has avionics. We have avionics. They have an internal combustion engine that has pistons and magnetos, a lot of moving parts. Our engine doesn’t have that many moving parts. So why should a rocket cost more than a Cessna? The answer is it shouldn’t unless you’re buying a lot of specialty parts from specialized outside suppliers. At Astra, we build those parts internally.
That’s why you’re vertically integrated.
Yes, we are. We can manufacture 95 percent of all of the components on the rocket here in this building. Very complex machines don’t necessarily have a lot of complexity. The best technology is like magic.
You are working in an area that’s of great interest to foreign governments and to bad actors.
Yeah. And as a U.S. company, we are entirely staffed by U.S. citizens, and we’re entirely based in the United States. I think Astra has always been focused on being a great partner to the U.S. government. Our first mission, our first successful orbital flight, was for the U.S. Space Force.
Are you a customer of the government, or are they a customer of yours?
Oh, that’s complicated. We provide launches to the government right now.
And you rent Cape Canaveral to do some of your launches.
That’s true. So it’s a bit of both. And what we’re trying to do is vertically integrate as much of the system as possible, so that we can be like FedEx, so that we depend less on the government. We’d like to just be a service provider to the government, so that we can make this easy for them.
What about launch sites? I remember you’d go to Alaska.
In those early days, we made a very important strategic decision, which is to make our entire launch system portable.
You were going to launch from boats at one point. Gyrostabilized platforms.
Yes. And we still might. When you have a portable launch system, you can launch from anywhere. When you compare that to our competitors, they have spent years building fixed fortifications. One of my favorite quotes is by General Patton: “Fixed fortifications are monuments to the stupidity of man.” We can literally pack up the entire launch site into containers, ship them on a boat, on a truck, on a plane and unpack them in less than a week with five people, and then launch a rocket. And that is an absolutely unprecedented capability.
Do people ever talk to you about weaponizing rockets? Because we think of them sometimes as instruments of war.
We haven’t [had those discussions]. I think that our mission has been to improve life on Earth from space. And we primarily think about doing that in terms of creating a healthier and also a more connected planet.
A healthier planet involves sensors that help us understand CO2 in the atmosphere or methane, taking images of the planet to understand changes that are occurring. And then a more connected planet we think of in terms of providing better connectivity to people that are unconnected or devices that are unconnected.
To build a company like this, you need many different kinds of people. What kind of skills are you looking for?
We have an incredibly diverse team. We literally have people that will bring raw materials in the door, build machines, assemble parts, test parts—parts designed by engineers in the building. We have folks that operate a whole system. We’re kind of like Boeing and United Airlines all in one. Astra is able to bring together the entire value chain—designing, manufacturing, operating, marketing, selling. And there’s a lot of software, so we’ve built the software systems to power the factory, and the majority of the operating system on the rocket is all Astra.
I was impressed by how important software is to stabilize the rocket, to make sure fuel is pumped into the nozzle fast. There’s a lot of close timing of events. It’s not just lighting a fuse and there goes the rocket.
From about 30 seconds before the flight until the payload is deployed, it’s an autonomous vehicle. As an example, the gentleman that’s running engineering came out of Apple. He was there over 20 years, worked on a lot of the iPhone core technologies, but most recently had worked on their now-public self-driving car program, and he ran that program for a number of years. So if you think about the rocket as an autonomous vehicle, that’s the right mental model to have for it. Think about it as something that you’re going to make a large number of, that have to be individually inexpensive, and that are highly automated.
So your product is not just an object; it’s a system?
We are a services company. We are providing a service. What if you could just plug your instrument into a satellite and then it would fly in the next week? So if you think about what Silicon Valley looked like in the late ’70s and early ’80s, we had [Steve] Wozniak and the Homebrew Computer Club; everybody was building custom computers.
That’s what the satellite industry is today. So we’re taking a giant leap, from really the mainframe era, where everything’s a custom computer, all the way to plug and play, where you could plug your sensor like a USB device into a satellite and we could fly it the next day. We basically turned the satellite into a personal computer.
The Astra Bus.
Yeah, into an iPhone.
You’re building the rockets; you’re building portable launch systems. You’ve built such an incredible organization. You’d be in a good position to engineer payloads either for yourself or for certain customers.
If you go beyond just the launch service, you next think about the satellite constellation as a service. During our IPO, we talked about this vision of a constellation service where a single constellation could power many applications. When you think about Amazon Web Services, for example, they have one infrastructure that’s multi-tenant, which means many companies share that one infrastructure.
They built it for themselves, then they decided that they could rent it to other people that needed a similar service.
Right. As it turns out, you might not need an entire constellation. So if you’re a small telco, you might not need a 10,000-satellite constellation, because the satellites are largely not over your country.
It’s 10 years from today—what does the space industry look like?
Well, I think that it’ll be very clear what space tech is versus what space travel is. I think that they are separate things.
Amplify that a little bit.
I think in 10 years, the focus on space tech to improve life on Earth and the cohort of companies that are working on that mission will be radically different than the cohort of companies that are focused on creating a multiplanetary species. Astra is trying to lead the effort to improve life on Earth—from space.•