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Astra targeting late August for first launch since going public, carrying Space Force satellite

Rocket 3.2 lifts off on December 15, 2020 from Kodiak, Alaska.

John Kraus / Astra

Publicly traded rocket builder Astra will go for its first launch of the year later this month, aiming to carry a Pentagon payload to orbit.

“The Space Force is right now lined up to do a demonstration launch with a window that’s going to begin August 27,” Astra CEO Chris Kemp told CNBC.

This launch is the first of two Astra has under contract from the U.S. Space Force’s Space Test Program, with the latter planned for later this year. The launch window will run for 16 days, until September 11.

Astra’s Rocket 3 vehicle will liftoff from the Pacific Spaceport Complex on Kodiak Island in Alaska. The payload is a small demonstration satellite for the Space Force.

“We are thrilled to partner with Astra on this mission and believe this showcases critical low-cost, mobile and responsive launch capability,” Space Test Program director Colonel Carlos Quinones said in a statement.

Astra stock rose 2% in premarket trading Thursday from its previous close of $8.25 a share.

A hotfire test of a Delphin first-stage rocket engine on March 15, 2021.

John Kraus / Astra

Shares of Astra have slipped 36% since the company closed its SPAC merger and began trading on the Nasdaq. The stock had climbed above $15 a share in the days following its debut, but has slipped in recent weeks to trade near $8 a share.

Asked about his company’s stock price, Kemp said he thinks “both shareholders and customers alike will appreciate that we’re on schedule here” with Astra’s next launch, which the company previously said would happen this summer.

“We appreciate shareholders’ patience with us as we build and launch rockets so we can start to begin recognizing revenue,” Kemp said.

Based in Alameda, California on the edge of the San Francisco Bay — Astra is wrapping up preparations on the next rocket at its headquarters, with Kemp said expects to ship the launch vehicle up to Alaska “in the next week or two.” Kemp noted that Astra’s launch team, which consists of just a few people, will then “need a week or two up in Alaska to get everything set up.”

Astra remains “on track” to do three launches in total this year, before beginning to ramp up production and operations to start launching at a monthly rate by the end of the year, Kemp said.

He also noted that Astra has “over 50 launches in our backlog,” with more information expected to come when the company reports its second-quarter results on Aug. 12.

Upgrades to the rocket

Astra VP of manufacturing Bryson Gentile, left, and CEO Chris Kemp take a protective cover off a rocket fairing half.

Michael Sheetz | CNBC

Astra will also be testing upgrades to its Rocket 3 system on this next launch. The company’s last launch in December reached space, but the rocket came just short of orbit.

“This really allows our team to verify numerous upgrades to our rocket and our launch system,” Kemp said.

While the prior launch “exceeded our expectations,” it also taught Astra about multiple ways to improve its rocket. One was that the vehicle had fuel left over in both the upper and lower stages of the rocket’s tank, so Astra has improved the propellant management system. The company also lengthened the rocket slightly, adding five feet overall, and streamlined the avionics of the rocket’s upper stage to use just one motherboard.

“It consolidates a lot of the avionics on the first stage so we have a lot more mass available to payload,” Kemp said.

“If this flight works, we’ll be delighted and if it doesn’t, we’ll learn a lot,” Kemp added.

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