Forget SpaceX, this is Astra and addicts love Google’s autonomous car

This secret start-up that wants to become “the FedEx of space” is launching satellites for a million dollars.

Les fondateurs d’Astra veulent devenir «le FedEx de l’espace». L’entreprise fabrique de petites fusées pouvant être produites en masse et à bas coût, pour des vols quotidiens. L’objectif: proposer un lancement de satellite en orbite terrestre basse pour un million de dollars (900.000 euros).

Astra was founded three years ago by Chris Kemp, 42, a serial entrepreneur from Nasa, and Adam London, 47, a doctor of aeronautics and founder of Ventions, a start-up that was already working on the miniaturization of rockets. The company has raised more than $100 million from funds and investors such as Acme, Airbus Ventures and billionaire Marc Benioff.

Rapid satellite launches are considered a priority by the U.S. government. Three start-ups have been selected by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) for the Launch Challenge.

The challenge: launch two rockets a few weeks apart. The price: 12 million dollars (11 million euros). Astra came naturally: Virgin Orbit withdrew from the competition and Vector Launch went bankrupt. The first launch, scheduled for February 21 in Kodiak, Alaska, has yet to be successful.

It’s not the size that counts
The bulk of this market involves large rockets that carry several tons, cost up to 371 million euros per launch and fly once a month – as at SpaceX. Astra is positioned in another segment: small rockets for small satellites, which carry about 200 kilos, cost about 900,000 euros and fly every day.

This choice coincides with the growth of companies such as Planet Labs, Spire Global and Swarm Technologies. Instead of launching an object as big as a car into orbit, they send dozens of probes as small as basketballs.

Astra has long operated in secret. She moved to the former Alameda airbase in California. It has a building formerly used to test aircraft engines indoors, equipped with long tunnels for rockets and exhaust chimneys for fumes. As a result, the company was able to conduct thousands of tests without being noticed. Manufacturing, testing and adjustments are carried out in the same place – unlike its competitors.

If it succeeds in its first satellite launch in Kodiak, Astra will have broken all the speed records for an orbiting and the future will no doubt be set for its success.

Used syringes, stone throws, non-existent social benefits: the working conditions at Waymo are increasingly decried.

Used syringes in autonomous vehicles. This is one of the many problems that Waymo employees, who recently partnered with French company Transdev, are complaining about.

Google began experimenting with autonomous cars in 2009, in the utmost secrecy. In 2016, Waymo became a subsidiary of Alphabet and began offering its services to Arizonans. The company now occupies 60,000 square meters in Chandler, near Phoenix.

Its Chrysler Pacifica and Jaguar I-PACE carry a thousand people every day. In addition to its permanent strength, Waymo relys on an army of insecure personnel to maintain, adjust and reload its vehicles. A pilot must also be present at all times to regain control in the event of a technical failure.

Stone throws, flat tires and used syringes

With Transdev’s arrival, the insecure have gone from “providers” (contractor) to “suppliers” (vendors). Under the old status, a six-month period of inactivity had to be observed every two years before it could be re-worked.

Initially, the change was well received. But there was a wolf, according to several testimonies collected by The Verge. Leave has been reduced from twenty-one days unpaid to ten days, of which only five are paid. The coverage offered by the company’s health insurance, considered poor, would not have improved.

Employees also complain of older problems. Among them, the lack of secure procedures to manage clients with violent behavior. Or, more surprisingly, to clean used syringes that are sometimes found in vehicles: Waymo’s autonomous cars seem to have been transformed into walking shooting rooms by some addicts.

More broadly, staff fear for their safety. It must be said that not everyone appreciates the presence of autonomous cars. By the end of 2018, the vehicles had been involved in twenty-one incidents in the space of two years: stone-throwing, flat tires…

Waymo denies the charges and Transdev declined to comment. Alphabet’s subsidiary will soon open a new branch in Mesa, Arizona’s third largest city, and hire hundreds of people. But under what conditions will they work?



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