Alameda Point has specialty craft breweries and distilleries. Coming soon – craft rockets. Startup company Astra Space hopes to sell its economy-sized rockets to any entity wanting to launch its own small satellite into low earth orbit.
On April 22, the city council and members of the public got a tour of its nearly completed production facility prior to a special meeting of the council. The meeting was billed as a recommendation to authorize the city’s commercial real estate broker Cushman and Wakefield to market a 24-acre industrial area in the commercial Enterprise District to businesses and developers. But because Cushman and Wakefield had already been authorized to market the area at least twice since 2015, the real reason for the tour and meeting was to showcase a shifting strategy for the district that will now include adaptively reusing some existing buildings, rather than tearing everything down as previously envisioned.
The 24 acres includes Astra’s indoor rocket testing facility, Building 397, formerly used by the Navy to test aircraft engines.
When Astra expressed interest in Building 360 across the street from the testing facility as a potential production facility, the city decided to re-think its long held view that this industrial site was unmarketable and would be demolished.
Building 360, which once served as an engine overhaul and repair facility for the Navy, is a massive architectural eyesore looming in the landscape next to the Main Street Soccer Field. In stark contrast to outward appearances, however, half of the inside is now a brightly painted modern manufacturing facility with overhead cranes and work stations in-the-making on the gleaming epoxy-coated floor.
But the shabby exterior is the least of Astra’s worries. The building also sits atop massive groundwater contamination that is currently being remediated by the Navy. The groundwater is not expected to meet commercial standards for vapor emissions until about 2022.
In order for the Navy and environmental regulators to allow occupancy, a special vapor mitigation plan is being prepared by Astra to ensure its employees are not effected by solvent vapors drifting up from the ground below. According to the Navy and city staff, air readings of the solvent trichloroethane (TCE) are not currently at harmful levels. But Astra and the regulators have yet to come up with a backup plan to avoid shutting down production if air monitoring equipment detects trouble.
The Navy still owns the building. The city is allowed to lease the building. The remodeling and rehab work is being conducted through a temporary license agreement between the city and Astra. A lease is expected when the air vapor plan is approved, and the lease will likely include an option for Astra to renovate the rest of the building and eventually purchase it.
Astra’s rocket, and those being developed by competitors, is small by comparison to those used by SpaceX and missions to outer space. They are small enough to be loaded onto a flatbed truck, as seen on ABC7 TV coverage of an Astra testing event at Alameda Point in 2018.
Astra is currently listing on Linkedin a variety high-skilled job openings under a pseudonym called Stealth Space Company. The founder and CEO is listed as Chris Kemp, the same name listed as a CEO signer on the license agreement with the city. The job listings offer a glimpse into this business.
The job listing for a manufacturing engineer, for example, says, “You will help build our rocket factory! … [Y]ou’ll work in a cross-disciplinary team that is designing, building and testing the first and second stage primary structures of our rocket.”
The listing for a launch operations director says, “be part of the team that develops the operations for high volume launches. You will help with regulations and FAA licensing to gain authorization to launch from existing national sites and to develop new launch sites as the company grows.”
Before Astra starts cranking out rockets and shipping them from one of the now vacant piers at Alameda Point, they need to first perfect their product. So far, at least one of their test launches ended in failure. A November 2018 test launch from the Pacific Spaceport Complex-Alaska, a commercial launch site on Kodiak Island, Alaska, operated by Alaska Aerospace Corp., ended with Astra’s rocket failing on liftoff. Acting FAA Director Dan Elwell is quoted in SpaceNews saying, “Even though all five engines failed, all debris landed in the spaceport boundary, and there were no injuries or property damage to the uninvolved public.”
Astra/Stealth Space describes its mission as, “We believe that space is the ultimate high ground, and we are on a mission to provide routine access to earth orbit for the entrepreneurs and enterprises that are launching a new generation of services powered by small satellites that will connect, observe, and influence our planet.”
These new satellites, being closer to earth, will be able to provide drone-quality imagery of environmental destruction, natural disasters, climate change, and military intelligence targets. The Department of Defense might have other uses in mind, and Astra appears to be in the competition for whatever those “other uses” might be, even if being a bit stealthy.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is hosting what it calls the DARPA Launch Challenge that “aims to demonstrate flexible and responsive launch capabilities in days, not years, for our nation’s defense.” One of the three teams qualified to compete is called Stealth.
Each team has already been awarded $400,000, according to an April 10, 2019, posting on the DARPA website. The short-notice launch challenge can take place from little more than a concrete pad. Teams will receive $2 million for a successful first launch. For a successful second launch, prizes of $10 million, $9 million, and $8 million will be awarded.
“Today, most military and government launches are national events that are planned years in advance and require large, fixed infrastructure,” states DARPA. “We want to move to a more risk-accepting philosophy and a much faster pace so we can put assets into space at the speed of warfighter needs. By incentivizing the nascent small launch market, stressing the launch licensing process, and reducing the dependence on complex infrastructure, the challenge could help transform the way the Department of Defense uses low-Earth orbit.”
All this stealthy mystique is why participants in the tour of Astra’s facility at Alameda Point were told by the rocket man not to take any photographs because it would violate International Traffic in Arms Control (ITAR) regulations that are “designed to help ensure that defense related technology does not get into the wrong hands.” An inquiry to the city as to whether posting photos online taken inside Building 360 would be illegal produced this response from Astra: “Yes, this would constitute an ITAR violation, a federal crime subject to statutory fines and imprisonment.”
According to a March 26, 2018, article on the website Parabolic Arc, Astra has been award “29 contracts worth nearly $21 million over the past 11 years from NASA, U.S. Air Force, DARPA, Missile Defense Agency and the U.S. Army.”
While Astra is able to hire highly skilled workers for its rocket development, it is unknown whether they have been paying union-scale wages to the workers doing remodeling and rehab for them at Building 360. Astra’s temporary license agreement with the city stipulates that they must pay prevailing wages, otherwise known as union scale wages. But the city does not have an audit system in place for work done under leases and licenses. The city only audits for contracts that the city directly enters into on city property. An inquiry to the city as to whether Astra was paying union scale wages for remodeling work produced this response from Astra: “We do not publicly disclose financial or contractual information.”
Despite Astra having its company’s efforts widely reported in the media, complete with photos, videos, and documentation, Astra asked city staff to urge me not to write about them.
Yet to be debated is whether this new business fits into the city’s emphasis on green technology, and whether it’s a good idea to reuse existing buildings in the Enterprise District versus having all new construction to fund the costly infrastructure upgrades.