After weeks of bad weather, an earthquake and other delays, private space startup Astra launched its orbital rocket on the first of three tests from Alaska last week.
The rocket did not make it to space and fell back to Earth soon after liftoff but the experience of seeing an orbital liftoff was still enjoyed by residents who came out to watch the first attempt.
On Friday, Rocket 3.1 launched from the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Kodiak, Alaska. About 30 seconds into the flight, a slight shimmy was detected, causing the rocket to drift from its planned path, Astra co-founders Chris Kemp and Adam London said. That triggered a shutdown of the engines by the flight safety system and the rocket broke apart, tumbling back down in a fiery explosion.
No one was injured and viewers who witnessed the test were several miles away. It’s impressive that the entire launch system was operated by six people in under a week, according to Astra.
Astra leaders still described the first attempt as a “beautiful launch” and said data from the flight will lead to improvements for the next test launches. The company is aiming to achieve orbit in three flights.
“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,” Kemp and London said in a post.
Regardless of the outcome, residents around Kodiak came out to watch the liftoff in person with a mostly clear view of the launch. Kodiak Island is small with a population of about 10,000 and includes a U.S. Coast Guard base and residents were excited to see the liftoff.
One of those excited viewers was Jennifer Culton, who recorded a video of her family’s reaction to the liftoff and then the fiery finale. Her video must be watched with the sound on. Jennifer’s husband, Levi, their 5-year-old son Adam, along with their friends' reactions provide colorful commentary.
“Whoa that looks gorgeous,” someone says in the video as the rocket rises into the clouds. A few seconds later, Jennifer Culton repeatedly says “uh oh” when things went awry in the sky.
“I don’t think that’s supposed to happen,” someone says, and then when the explosion can be seen from the launch site, “holy moly!”
Jennifer Culton said when the video shakes, that’s when they could feel the shock waves of the explosion.
The Cultons and their viewing party were worried about the Astra launch operators.
“I hope everyone’s OK,” Levi Culton says, adding a few seconds later, “Should we go see if we can help?”
A member of the U.S. Coast Guard, Levi Culton said it was instinct to be concerned when he saw the explosion. Levi Culton and a friend actually drove to the gates of the launch site to see if anyone was injured. A security guard told them no one was hurt.
“We asked them if there was anything to do to help and stuff and he said the area was well cleared out and they had ambulances and fire trucks on scene,” Levi Culton said.
Jennifer Culton, who grew up in Miami, said they had gone to see the previously scheduled launches that were delayed. She said that rang true for the launches she tried to see in Florida as a child, driving up the coast only for a scrub.
“It was kind of like a dream come true to see a launch go off,” she said. “Finally, I get to see one. We’re kind of obsessed with space right now.”
Five-year-old Adam was also really impressed, even without a successful launch.
“It was so cool!” he said.
Jennifer Culton’s video on Twitter received more than 1,400 likes and nearly 300 retweets. Social media users also enjoyed the wholesome commentary provided by the Culton family.
Jennifer Culton said when she uploaded the video, she didn’t mean for the commentary to be included.
“When I realized it had uploaded with all of our silly commentary, I was so embarrassed,” Jennifer Culton laughed.
Jennifer Culton said she was glad she shared this experience with her young son, whose room is decked out in all things space.
Volume up! Rocket 3.1's orbital launch attempt pic.twitter.com/nm1bDewdl5— Astra (@Astra) September 12, 2020
The next rocket, called 3.2, is ready for Astra’s second orbital launch test, according to the company.
Getting off the planet is one of the hardest parts about spaceflight. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk responded to Astra’s first attempt in a tweet saying it took SpaceX four tries for its Falcon rocket to achieve spaceflight.
“Sorry to hear that. I’m sure you’ll figure it out though. Took us four launches to reach orbit. Rockets are hard,” Musk said.
This isn’t the first launch from Alaska -- just the largest -- NASA has been launching smaller sounding rockets from Poker Flat Research Range north of Fairbanks for years to study the ionosphere and auroras.