Astra rocket lifts off, then falls to ground in fiery explosion

Astra's Rocket 3.1 lifts off from Kodiak’s Pacific Spaceport Complex Alaska on Sept. 11.

A rocket launched by Astra from Kodiak’s Pacific Spaceport Complex Alaska on Sept. 11 managed to leave the pad but never reached orbit as intended. Instead, after a few seconds of flight, the rocket plummeted back to Earth, causing a fiery explosion when it hit the ground.   


Astra, a California-based startup company, launched the two-stage 3.1 rocket at 8:19 p.m. A video of the launch taken by two hunters shows the rocket lifting off, but after a few seconds the engines shut off and the rocket falls back to the ground, at which point it disappears into a huge ball of fire.

“Uh oh,” one of the onlookers can be heard saying on the video. “That, I don’t think was good.” 

“Holy mackerel, that’s unbelievable,” another person says. “That’s real close to where we were hunting this morning.”

Astra representatives said that shortly after liftoff, issues with the guidance systems caused the rocket to drift from its planned trajectory. Astra’s team had to quickly command the launch vehicle’s engines to safely land the rocket. 

Although the rocket flew off course, Astra representatives said it landed within the designated safety zone. 

“Early in the flight, our guidance system appears to have introduced some slight oscillation into the flight, causing the vehicle to drift from its planned trajectory leading to a commanded shutdown of the engines by the flight safety system,” Astra wrote in a blog post after the launch.

“We didn’t meet all of our objectives, but we did gain valuable experience, plus even more valuable flight data. This launch sets us well on our way to reaching orbit within two additional flights, so we’re happy with the result.”

Astra will analyze and use the data collected on Sept. 11 to inform its next flight with a new rocket, Rocket 3.2, which is undergoing a final round of testing. 

Since Astra began attempting rocket launches in Kodiak last year, the company has estimated that it would need three flights before successfully reaching orbit.

“This was our first orbital launch attempt, and the first flight of a rocket designed from the ground-up for low cost mass production and highly-automated launch operations,” the company wrote on its blog. “The entire launch system was deployed by six people in less than a week — completely unprecedented.”