After aborted rocket launch in Kodiak, Astra picks up the pieces

Explosion of Astra 3.1 rocket on after it fell to the ground from 11,000 feet. (Photo courtesy of Eric Van Dongen)

The Alaska Aerospace Corporation says it has begun to open up areas near the Kodiak Pacific Spaceport, closed off after a rocket crashed there on Friday, Sept. 11.

The corporation, which was established by the state of Alaska, manages the launch complex and is a partner with Astra, a California start-up company testing a 38-foot rocket, that’s portable and scaled-down to lower the costs of launches.

When the rocket began to drift off course on Friday, its engines were shut down to abort the flight, causing it to plunge to the ground and explode in an orange ball of fire.

Mark Lester, head of the Alaska Aerospace Corporation, says the crash tore up the tundra, broke some trees and scattered the remnants of the rocket.

The rocket crashed on state land shortly after lift-off. Alaska Aerospace Corporation says this shot was taken on Saturday, before the clean-up began. (Photo courtesy of Alaska Aerospace Corporation)

“All the pieces have been picked-up. The team worked over the weekend to clean up the area,” which Lester described as roughly the size of a racquetball court.

The rocket crashed on state land, which is part of the spaceport’s operating zone. When it’s not in use for rocket testing, the land is open for hunting and recreation. Lester says hiking trails and the road to Fossil Beach have re-opened. Only the crash site remains closed.

“A lot of the fuel was burned off in the explosion that everyone saw,” Lester said. “It’s possible we (could) see some residual fuel there.”

Lester said the soil will be tested.

“If we find anything, we’ll take care of it and fully remediate the area,” he said.

Astra says it has another model that will be ready for testing soon. Although the rocket only reached an altitude of about 11,000 feet, Astra calls the launch a success — and Lester agrees.

“The altitude may not be impressive to some, but for those of us in the space industry, we understand that a million little pieces have to work together — to have that rocket do what it did,” said Lester, who compared it to the Wright brother’s first flight in 1903. “For all of us who love aviation, we owe a lot to that one short flight of a couple hundred feet.”

Shortly after Friday’s failed launch, Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, posted a message of encouragement on Astra’s Twitter page, after the company announced the rocket didn’t get past the first stage.

“Sorry to hear that,” Musk wrote. “I’m sure you’ll figure it out though. Took us four launches to reach orbit. Rockets are hard.”

“And rocket science is hard,” said Lester. “Look, Elon has been there, right? He went through this process. In the early 2000s, he had a launch vehicle about this size — and once he proved that out, after four launches, then he started making it bigger.”

Today, Lester said, Musk’s SpaceX company is very successful in launching big rockets.

Astra says its 3.1 rocket had a beautiful lift-off, but its team had to shut down its engines and abort the flight, when it started to drift from its trajectory. Photo courtesy of Astra and John Kraus, a space flight photographer.

Astra hopes to develop a rocket that smaller, private companies can utilize for sending telecommunications satellites into space. Lester says if Astra is successful, it’ll revolutionize the industry.

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