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SPACs in space have a hard time taking off

As the rocket flew sideways, the stock price plunged. On August 28, Astra Space attempted a third orbital launch from Kodiak, Alaska, utilizing an updated version of its small launch vehicle, Rocket 3.3. The flight was among two under a contract with the United States Space Force, and it carried a test payload intended to measure the weights and vibrations that a satellite would encounter.

That payload yielded results that were quite different from what was predicted. Instead of rising from the launch pad, this rocket tilted, then righted itself, and later drifted away from it, hanging just over the ground in a maneuver nicknamed a “power slide” or “driftoff” by some viewers of the live webcast. The rocket took over 15 seconds to cease drifting and begin climbing.

Even though this rocket was able to begin its ascent into space, it was essentially doomed. The range gave directives to shut down the rocket’s engines about 2½ minutes into the launch since it was outside its approved trajectory. The rocket soared to a height of around 50 kilometers before crashing into the sea, safely out of harm’s way.

Chris Kemp, Astra’s chief executive, told reporters approximately 90 minutes after the launch that one of the rocket’s 5 first-stage engines shut down less than one second after the liftoff for unknown reasons. He explained, “The guidance system had control, and the rocket resumed flying horizontally for several seconds until we burnt up enough propellants to resume our liftoff.”

The company attempted to frame the setback as a learning opportunity (the company’s subsequent press release was simply headlined “Astra Conducts Test Launch.”) During the call, Kemp stated, “We collected a significant quantity of data from the aircraft.” “We’ll be able to integrate everything we learned before shipping it up to the Kodiak Company and launching again,” says Astra, whose second rocket is now being manufactured in its California factory.

The failure of Rocket 3.3 was not Astra’s first, and it was the very first since the company merged with Holicity, which is a special-purpose acquisition firm (SPAC). This transaction garnered around $500 million in cash as well as made Astra a Nasdaq-listed business.

When the markets resumed the following Monday, August 30, the stock market behaved predictably. Astra shares opened about 25% lower than the previous Friday’s finish and gained minimal ground the remainder of the day, closing roughly 18% lower. Since then, the stock has remained virtually unchanged.

While the selloff following the failure was unsurprising, what happened the day before, on Friday, August 27, when Astra attempted to launch Rocket 3.3 for the first time, was probably more instructive. While the launch window began after the markets had closed, Astra stock increased in after-market trade as the countdown to liftoff approached, peaking as the countdown approached zero.

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