Explosion during Astra launch rehearsal results in damage and small fire

An unexpected error during a rocket launch rehearsal caused a small brush fire and damage to launch facilities at the Pacific Spaceport Complex on Kodiak on Monday.

Alaska Aerospace CEO Mark Lester reported the “anomaly” caused an explosion on Launch Pad B at 2 p.m. Monday afternoon. No staff were present at the pad during the rehearsal and there were no injuries, he said. He could not confirm what caused the explosion.

Launch Pad B, the site of Astra’s first DARPA Launch Challenge launch in late February, 2020. Astra funded the construction of the pad this past summer, though it still belongs to Alaska Aerospace Corporation. (Photo by Kavitha George/KMXT).

“The state’s pad infrastructure did suffer relatively minor damage,” he said. “For example, there’s a tear in the fabric building. And that’s actually being patched today. That did result in a grass fire in area three, which was extinguished by spaceport personnel.”

Lester estimates the fire burned about a quarter of an acre of state-owned land near the pad. Despite some wind, he says spaceport crew trained to put out fires had the blaze extinguished within two and a half hours. An initial survey show no signs of fuel contamination in the area.

Monday’s dress rehearsal was for a launch by California-based rocket startup Astra. The rocket, called “One of Three,” was initially set to be launched in Kodiak last month during the DARPA Launch Challenge. That launch was scrapped 53 seconds before lift-off due to a faulty sensor reading. Lester says there was no reason to think the aborted DARPA challenge launch had anything to do with Monday’s explosion.

In an email on Tuesday, an Astra representative confirmed a “technical issue” during Monday’s dress rehearsal that caused them to call off the actual launch, which was set for this week. The company is planning to reschedule the launch once again, but there’s no indication yet of when that might be.

Despite the reported damage to spaceport facilities, Astra CEO Chris Kemp told TechCrunch on Tuesday that “Fortunately, our own hardware was the only thing harmed, and our team is already hard at work to determine the root cause so that we can improve the vehicle’s design.”

Lester estimates repairs to Pad B are in the order of a few weeks to months, but there are multiple other pads the company could presumably use in the meantime.

More pressing than the repair schedule is coronavirus spread. Within the last week, the state of Alaska has imposed more stringent restrictions and guidelines to prevent the spread of the virus, including a mandatory 14-day quarantine period for people traveling to Alaska from out of state — that would be an obstacle for the Astra team, who flew up from California last week.

Lester says the spaceport took precautions like reducing staff for this launch, but it’s unclear what the pandemic means for a future launch date.

“Obviously with quarantine requirements that that does make it very difficult to do a launch,” he said. “And so we would have to look at what posture we’re in from the virus when we look at new dates. A lot of events that we’re working with get postponed and we can reevaluate as we get closer to those events to say, ‘Is it still appropriate to do this or not?’”

Astra has not yet returned multiple requests for comment on the risks of traveling to Kodiak for a launch during the pandemic, but in his statement to TechCrunch, Kemp said they would be looking to try again “once conditions with coronavirus improve and we have resolved the cause of yesterday’s incident.”

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