Rocket startup Astra trims staff to survive pandemic until next year

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KEY POINTS
  • San Francisco-area rocket builder Astra cut its overall headcount to about 120 employees from about 150, a person familiar told CNBC.
  • Given Astra’s financial position, the person said the company’s leadership expects it has enough cash to last until the first quarter of next year.
  • The company also recently lost one of its rockets in a fire during testing, the person said, with Astra not expecting to attempt another launch for a few months.
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Rocket builder Astra, a San Francisco-area startup, recently reduced its staff through a mix of furloughs and layoffs in order to survive delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic, a person familiar with the situation told CNBC.

Astra cut its overall headcount to about 120 employees from about 150 last month, the person said. The majority of the dismissed workers were furloughed for three months, with only a handful laid off permanently.

Given Astra’s financial position – it has customer contracts for a few dozen launches and had raised about $100 million from investors including ACME Capital, Airbus Ventures, Canaan Partners and Marc Benioff – the person said that the company’s leadership expects it has enough cash to last until the first quarter of next year.

Astra was previously hoping to close a new round of funding in the next few months. But investors across the U.S. have frozen new deals, instead focusing on helping existing portfolio companies survive.

The person added that Astra is making no assumptions about its existing launch agreements, with its financial estimates removing all revenue that wasn’t coming from contracts it deemed solid. Astra’s customers are worried about surviving this crisis themselves, the person said, with about half of its customers looking to pull out or at the very least renegotiate.

Astra is continuing to operate. However, the person told CNBC that only about 15% of its employees were daily working at its facilities last month, as the company took precautionary steps to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Astra is one of many in the space industry deemed “mission essential” by the Pentagon, with a letter that allows companies working national security contracts to continue operations even if state governments enforce lockdowns or shelter-in-place orders.

Setback in Alaska

The company was preparing for its third orbital launch attempt late last month, with Astra getting its Rocket 3.0 ready on a launchpad in Kodiak, Alaska. But there was an anomaly during a prelaunch test, local officials said. While no one was hurt, a person familiar told CNBC that a fire consumed Astra’s rocket – a total loss.

Astra is still investigating the mishap, which the person said appears to have been an unfortunate mistake. Because Astra needed to have a second rocket ready for the DARPA Launch Challenge, the person said the company plans to take another rocket up to Alaska in a few months.

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