Rocket startup Astra to go public in race for commercial space after suborbital launch from Kodiak

The rocket start-up Astra plans to go public, the company announced Tuesday, raising $500 million to bolster its position in the burgeoning market for space transportation.

In a deal valued at $2.1 billion, Astra would become the first publicly traded company dedicated to delivering satellites into Earth’s orbit. The Alameda, Calif.-based rocket-maker intends to go public through a merger with a blank-check company, or what’s known as a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC), which acts as a financial vehicle to bypass the traditional IPO process.

“We’re seeing hundreds of companies that want to get from anywhere on Earth to anywhere in space on their schedule - not wait years to get a lot of things to one place,” said Astra founder and chef executive Chris Kemp in an interview with CNBC’s “Squawk Box” this week. “So we’re really focused on building a much smaller rocket, produced in much higher volume, launched from a much larger number of locations.”

Kemp, a former chief technology officer for IT at NASA, said the deal was the best way to raise significant funding and gain access to public markets.

Astra offers launch services of payloads ranging from 50 to 150 kilograms, or as much as 330 pounds, and expects to begin deliveries into space by the end of the year. The company says it has booked more than $150 million in revenue from more than 50 planned launches. NASA and the Defense Department are among the company’s 10 existing customers, Astra said.

In a second test launch from Kodiak, Alaska, in December, an Astra rocket failed to reach Earth’s orbit after the upper-stage engine depleted its fuel seconds too early, preventing the vehicle from reaching orbit velocity. But the company considered the just-shy test flight a success. Astra aims to differentiate itself in the burgeoning market for space commerce by offering smaller, more frequent launches into low Earth orbit.

Including government budgets and corporate revenue, the global space industry amounts to more than $350 billion. While launch services make up only a few percentage points of that figure, the entire market depends on them. Orbital launches blast off about 100 to 120 times per year, worldwide.


Phil Smith, a space industry analyst at Bryce Space and Technology, an analytics and engineering firm, said it’s notable that despite not yet having sent a spacecraft to orbit, Astra has a sizable backlog of launches.

“The takeaway is that in addition to elevating its public profile, the funding will accelerate construction of a manufacturing facility and associated automated hardware, bringing the company’s operational timetable closer,” Smith said. “This is especially important since Astra claims it will launch a few hundred times a year.”

Craig McCaw, the telecommunications investor partnering with Astra through his SPAC Holicity, said in a news release Tuesday that “Astra’s space platform will further improve our communications, help us protect our planet, and unleash entrepreneurs to launch a new generation of services to enhance our lives.”

Shares of Holicity surged by 57% Tuesday.

[Hunters capture video of Astra rocket’s explosion on Kodiak Island]

The announcement follows the successful launch and docking of the SpaceX Crew Dragon with the International Space Station in November, a pioneering mission that officially marked the first time a privately owned and operated spacecraft certified by NASA made the trip with astronauts aboard.

NASA’s collaboration with SpaceX also represents the next evolution in human spaceflight, as the government works with private companies to design and build spacecraft and rockets. SpaceX, too, seemed to solidify its standing within the space industry, graduating from the status of an upstart rocket company founded by Elon Musk to a significant NASA partner, heightening popular and business interest in commercial space travel.

Astra said it expects the deal to close in the second quarter, pending regulatory and shareholder approvals. Listed on the Nasdaq, the company will trade under the ticker symbol ASTR.