Everything is looking up at Alameda Point rocket manufacturer Astra. Contracts to launch small satellites are up, partnerships are up, and capital investments in the company are up. And now the company is ready to expand its facility.
Astra is headquartered at 1900 Skyhawk Street in Building 360, next to the Main Street Soccer Field. The building was formerly used for repairing jet engines and is still owned by the Navy due to groundwater contamination that is undergoing remediation. Astra renovated the southern portion of the building in 2018 and 2019 under a license agreement with the City of Alameda to begin manufacturing rockets. Its rocket engines are tested in a facility across the street that was formerly used by the Navy to test jet engines.
In April 2021, the company received the go-ahead from the Navy and regulators to finish renovating Building 360 to expand rocket production. On May 25, the city issued a building permit for the northern portion of the 180,000 square-foot building.
What does Astra do?
Astra was formed to economically launch small satellites into low Earth orbit from virtually anywhere. A parking lot would suffice, if properly licensed. Astra’s rockets are constructed from aluminum, rather than more expensive carbon fiber, and are small enough to be loaded into a shipping container and easily transported to a launch site.
An “Astra Rocket Factory Tour” video of Astra’s manufacturing and testing facilities at Alameda Point can be viewed on YouTube:
Where is the money coming from?
Astra’s merger with investment company Holicity earlier this year made available $300 million for operations and expansion. The merger also means Astra becomes a publicly traded company on the NASDAQ stock exchange. Astra currently has contracts for 50 launches valued at $150 million.
One of its contracts is with NASA to launch small satellites to observe tropical cyclones. Another source of contracts will be with Planet Labs, which operates the world’s largest constellation of imaging satellites.
Why does Astra need regulatory approval to renovate a building?
Due to the ongoing remediation of groundwater under part of Building 360, a monitoring plan for indoor air was required during renovation of the building to ensure safety of the workers.
In the plan approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), and the California Water Board, the EPA and DTSC spelled out specific vapor detection devices that they wanted used during the renovation, among other things.
The renovation will include demolishing and replacing the roof, updating utilities, windows and doors, and sealing the floor with a special vapor barrier paint to prevent solvent vapors from entering the building.
What about the Surplus Lands Act?
The California Surplus Lands Act was amended in 2019 to require all publicly-owned property being sold or leased to first be offered to affordable housing developers. Initially, the City of Alameda was under the impression that the new law applied to former military bases like Alameda Point.
The city could have saved the $91,000 it paid to a consulting firm in 2020 to try and change the law, if it had received better advice. The consulting firm – Lang, Hansen, O’Malley & Miller – is supposedly an expert on the Surplus Lands Act. Their efforts to change the law were not only unsuccessful, they were unnecessary.
Subsequently, after learning that the City of Concord was moving forward with plans to develop its former Naval Weapons Station by declaring the site exempt from the Surplus Lands Act, the City of Alameda decided to follow suit.
On May 18, the city council declared the Enterprise District, where Astra’s facilities are located, along with four other sites at Alameda Point to be exempt from the Surplus Lands Act. They are exempt because the agreement with the Navy says the sites are to be used for job-generating purposes, not housing. Out of an abundance of caution to avoid legal challenges, however, the city is still planning to notify the affordable housing developers listed with the California Department of Housing and Community Development.
If this seems like a tortured exercise, it is. There is virtually zero chance that any affordable housing developer would pay the going rate of over $1 million per acre needed by the city to replace the decrepit underground utility infrastructure, or find it economical to tear down a 180,000 square foot industrial building so they could build affordable housing on land that requires a vapor barrier on the ground floor. This wasted exercise could have been avoided if Sacramento lawmakers had done more research.
In the meantime, on June 15, the city council held a closed session meeting to negotiate with Astra the price and terms of payment for the potential sale of three properties – Building 360 where it plans to expand, the rocket engine test facility it currently uses across the street, and another building next door. The Surplus Lands Act does not require a city to sell property for less than fair market value and, apparently, city staff are attempting to determine the value before offering it to affordable housing developers.
On Sunday, June 27, workers could be observed filling dumpsters with junk outside Building 360, as half a dozen others walked on the roof apparently discussing work plans. Astra is on its way to adding the kind of high-paying jobs the city has been seeking ever since the base closed.
Originally published in the Alameda Sun.
More info from Astra – “Planet Labs: Using Space To Help Life On Earth” news release and video.
Astra rocket standing next to its engine testing facility.