Firefly confirms launch failure due to the premature shutdown of one engine

Capitalism in space: Firefly this past weekend confirmed that its September 2nd launch failure was caused when one of the Alpha rocket’s first stage engines shut down almost immediately after liftoff.

On Sunday (Sept. 5), the company announced the proximate cause of the failure: One of Alpha’s four first-stage Reaver engines shut down unexpectedly about 15 seconds after liftoff. “The vehicle continued to climb and maintain control for a total of about 145 seconds, whereas nominal first-stage burn duration is about 165 seconds. However, due to missing the thrust of 1 of 4 engines, the climb rate was slow, and the vehicle was challenged to maintain control without the thrust vectoring of engine 2,” Alpha representatives wrote in a Twitter thread on Sunday.

“Alpha was able to compensate at subsonic speeds, but as it moved through transonic and into supersonic flight, where control is most challenging, the three-engine thrust vector control was insufficient and the vehicle tumbled out of control. The range terminated the flight using the explosive Flight Termination System (FTS). The rocket did not explode on its own,” they added.

The engine apparently did not fail or explode, it merely closed its main propellant valves so the engine was no longer being fed fuel. Though they obviously they need to find out why this happened, the nature of the failure is actually encouraging. It suggests a relatively easy fix (with a strong emphasis on the word “relatively”).

Debris from Firefly launch rains down near launch spectators

Alpha rocket exploding
Screen capture of explosion from Everyday Astronaut live stream.

When the range officer was forced to terminate the first launch of Firefly’s Alpha rocket on September 2, 2021, the subsequent explosion caused some of the debris to apparently fall near the spectators who had come out to see the launch.

Spectators who gathered across the Central Coast to watch the launch of Firefly Aerospace’s Alpha rocket — a privately designed, unmanned rocket built to carry satellites — instead saw it explode midair and debris rain down on nearby areas.

“I saw this thing floating down from the sky … then another piece, then another, and then hundreds of pieces varying in size were falling,” said Mike Hecker, a resident of Solvang who was out mountain biking in the Orcutt Hills with a large group of friends. “It was surreal to have rocket debris raining down on you,” he said.

According to all reports, it appears no one was injured or even came close to getting hurt.

We need to accept such things if we wish to do great things. The range officer destroyed the rocket to make sure it did not fly in one piece into anything on the ground, something that would have certainly caused great harm. Blowing it up prevented that, though it resulted in a small risk that smaller pieces might hit something.

Once, a story like this would have been intriguing but would have bothered no one. In today’s culture — which attempts to give everyone a “safe space” even from dissenting opinions — I fear that we shall find greater restrictions soon placed on launches.

Firefly first launch attempt fails after liftoff, shortly before stage separation

Alpha rocket exploding
Screen capture from Everyday Astronaut live stream.

Capitalism in space: Firefly’s first attempt to launch its Alpha rocket to orbit failed at T+2:30 minutes, shortly after it went supersonic and just before first stage engine cut-off and stage separation.

The screen capture to the right shows that explosion.

Lift-off procedures went very well, though the rocket itself appeared to reach supersonic speeds later than their timeline predicted, suggesting it was underpowered.

In fact, the whole operation reminded me of SpaceX’s early attempts to launch its Falcon-1 rocket. Just as happened in one of those early SpaceX launches, there was a launch abort at liftoff, the launch team quickly figured out what happened, recycled the rocket, and successfully lifted off an hour later. Kudos to that team!

The failure is unfortunate, but to repeat the cliche, this is rocket science. They will try again.

Firefly set for first orbital launch today

Capitalism in space: If all goes right, Firefly Aerospace will attempt its first orbital launch today from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, using its Alpha rocket to place a test payload of science experiments in space.

The launch window is from 6 pm to 10 pm Pacific.

If you wish to watch, I have embedded the live stream below. That stream however have been very poor. The stream is working better here.

Note: They had a launch abort right at launch, and appear to be recycling to try again.

Two new smallsat rockets now set for launch

Capitalism in space: The launch dates of two different new smallsat rockets is now confirmed.

First, Astra has obtained from the FAA a launch operator license that will allow it to launch rockets from now until March 2026. This license now allows the company to proceed with its August 27th first orbital launch of its Rocket-3 rocket. If successful, Astra hopes to move to monthly launches before the end of the year.

Second, Firefly has announced that it will attempt its own first orbital launch of its Alpha rocket on September 2nd. The company had been promising a launch before the end of the year, but until now had not set a date. The successful completion of a static fire test of the rocket cleared the way.

Three other smallsat rocket companies, Relativity, ABL, and Aevum, have also said they are targeting this year for their first orbital launches, but none has set any dates yet.

If successful, these companies will join Rocket Lab and Virgin Orbit in providing launch capabilities for tiny satellites like cubesats and nanosats.

Firefly hires noted SpaceX engineer

Capitalism in space: Firefly Aerospace announced earlier this week that it has hired as it chief operating officer Lauren Lyons, a former SpaceX engineer familiar to many for her regular appearances as a announcer on SpaceX’s launch telecasts.

The company said that Lyons will focus on “transitioning Firefly from an R&D environment to a production environment” for its Alpha small launch vehicle, Space Utility Vehicle tug and Blue Ghost lunar lander. “Firefly is entering a pivotal and exciting phase of its growth,” Lyons said in the statement. “I’m thrilled to take on the challenge of leading the efforts in scaling the company’s infrastructure to support rapid growth, high execution rate, and deliver exceptional value and service to our customers.”

Translation: Using Lyons expertise from SpaceX, Firefly intends to operate much like SpaceX, upgrading its rockets and spacecraft continuously even as they operate commercially.

The launch date for the company’s first orbital attempt remains unannounced, though it says it will occur before the end of the year. It appears they are ready to go, except for one component of their flight termination system.

Firefly raises $75 million in investment capital

Capitalism in space: Firefly announced today that it has raised an $75 million in investment capital, with plans for a future fund-raising round aimed at bringing in another $300 million following the inaugural launch of its Alpha rocket.

The launch itself has been delayed several times, from December and March. It now appears they are targeting mid-June.

The company claims the delays were caused by two factors, the failure of a subcontractor to deliver on time the flight termination system, and the company taking longer than expected to prepare its launchpad at Vandenberg.

On a positive note, the company received its FCC launch license a few weeks ago, which had been held up due to security concerns over the company’s former main investor, Ukrainian billionaire Max Polykov. It appears that when Polykov sold off much of his stock so that he no longer controls the company, this eliminated the security concerns.

Firefly’s 1st Alpha rocket almost ready for launch

Capitalism in space: According to Firefly’s CEO Tom Markusic, the company’s first Alpha rocket almost ready for launch, and should fly this year, with one or two commercial flights to quickly follow.

Alpha is “ready to go,” but two other major issues delayed its launch, Markusic said. The first involved an avionics flight termination system piece from an external vendor (whom Markusic did not name), which had qualification issues that created delays.

Also, Markusic said, “we didn’t put enough focus on the launch site.” Upgrading the United Launch Alliance Delta II facilities Firefly inherited at Vandenberg proved to be “more challenging than anticipated,” he added, but “we’re literally weeks away from being done.”

Based on the interview at the article, it sounds like launch is less than a couple of months away, which is still a delay from their previously announced launch date in March, a date that has now passed.

Firefly gets another launch contract

Capitalism in space: Firefly Aerospace, which hopes to do the first launch of its new Alpha rocket sometime this spring, has won another launch contract, this time with General Atomics to put an Earth science satellite in orbit in ’22.

The other contracts:

In December, the company won a NASA Venture Class Launch Services launch contract valued at $9.8 million to launch two sets of cubesats into polar orbits. It won a $93.3 million contract from NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program Feb. 4 for the 2023 launch of the company’s Blue Ghost lander carrying NASA payloads. That lander will be launched on another company’s rocket rather than Alpha.

Like all new rockets, the first launch will be highly risky. If successful however it will add one more launch company to the smallsat market, and encourage a further drop in the cost of getting such smallsats into orbit.

Firefly shakes up board of directors

The smallsat rocket company Firefly, only a month or so from the first orbital test flight of its Alpha rocket, has drastically changed its board of directors, removing its main financial backer from the Ukraine and replacing him with Americans.

Among those no longer on the board is Firefly’s financial savior, Polyakov, who has dual Ukrainian-British citizenship and lives in Edinburgh. This is a substantial change, as it moves the company’s key financial backer from a role as a decision maker to that of a stockholder. Markusic said Polyakov has the rights of a stockholder but that Firefly’s board now directs the company. Polyakov remains Firefly’s largest shareholder.

“These changes are part of the logical growth and development of Firefly,” Polyakov told Ars. “I’m extremely proud of what we have accomplished to date. Moving forward, I have the utmost confidence in Tom, his team, and the new board members.”

Some concerns had previously been raised about Polyakov’s background. This move, however, is more due to having an all-American board of directors, which should bolster Firefly’s efforts to work with the defense community.

Essentially, the company and Polykov have moved Polykov out of a sensitive position so as to make the company seem more palatable to the federal government. His presence on the board would have likely made it difficult to win any government contracts. Making him in name just a stockholder will reduce that issue.

Firefly gets two new launch contracts; completes testing on 1st stage

Capitalism in space: Firefly announced last week that it has signed two new launch contracts even as it has completed testing on the first stage of its Alpha rocket and has shipped it to the launch site..

One of the two launch contracts was for multiple launches. As for Alpha:

The Alpha Flight 1 Stage 1 performed a 35 second static fire, including a full suite of thrust vector control maneuvers. Subsequently, a 15 second final trim test was performed, and the stage will now ship to Firefly’s launch complex at Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB).

Concurrently, the Alpha Flight 1 payload fairing successfully completed a separation test. The payload fairing separation system was designed and manufactured by Firefly. The system is operationally recyclable, allowing for multiple tests of the flight unit.

Firefly is also nearing completion of its Launch Control Center, Integration Hangar, and launch pad, including assembly of the Transporter Erector Launcher (TEL) at historic Space Launch Complex 2 West (SLC-2W) at VAFB. Firefly’s TEL, built by Firefly’s design and fabrication teams in Texas and California, is being integrated and will soon commence ground system activation.

They are still aiming for the first launch before the end of this year.

Firefly completes static fire test of its Alpha first stage

Capitalism in space: Firefly Aerospace today released video footage showing the first successful static fire test of the first stage of its Alpha rocket.

I have embedded one of the videos, showing the test from multiple camera angles, below the fold.

The test is very impressive, and suggests strongly that they are on schedule to meet their target launch date for their first orbital test flight sometime between November ’20 and May ’21. It also suggests that this dark horse smallsat rocket company, once considered dead after filing for bankruptcy, might actually beat to orbit its closest competitors, Virgin Orbit and Astra. The latter two have already completed their first launch attempts, but both ended in failure.

Regardless, it appears the race between these three rocket companies is tightening. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if all three achieve their first orbital launches in the six to eight months.
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Next Starship test flight to go to 60,000 feet

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has decided, after two successful 500 foot hops using its fifth and sixth Starship prototypes, to forego further hops with those prototypes and instead test fly prototype number eight to a height of 60,000 feet, about 11 miles.

Starship SN5 and SN6 were set to become a tag-team, flying 150-meter hops to refine the launch and landing techniques that SpaceX has pioneered with its Falcon 9 rocket. However, with SN5’s hop proving to be a success, followed by a notable improvement with SN6’s leap to 150 meters a few weeks later, it’s likely SpaceX is now confident of advancing to the next milestone.

The company has applied for an FCC license to do the flight anytime from Oct ’20 to April ’21, with October 11th being the first available date.

In the meantime the company plans a pressure tank test to failure of prototype #7, probably later this week.

In other related news at the second link, Boeing and Firefly have also applied for FCC licenses, the former for a Starliner demo mission from November ’20 to May ’21, the latter for its first launch of its smallsat Alpha rocket, also from November ’20 to May ’21.

Firefly signs deal with satellite broker Spaceflight

Capitalism in space: Firefly Aerospace has signed a deal whereby the satellite broker Spaceflight will provide the payloads for one of Firefly’s Alpha rocket launches, planned for 2021.

The smallsat launch company already has several other launch contracts, even as development of its rocket proceeds.

Firefly is in the final phases of development of Alpha, and hopes to perform its first launch later this year. Markusic said the company is assembling the first flight vehicle, with plans to perform static-fire tests of the second stage in May and the first stage in June. Once those tests are complete, the vehicles will be shipped to Vandenberg, where work is continuing to modify Space Launch Complex 2 West, a former Delta 2 pad.

A lot can happen between now and 2021, but so far Firefly appears a strong candidate to launch and compete with Rocket Lab.

Fire during Firefly rocket engine test forces evacuations

A fire during an engine test of Firefly Aerospace’s Alpha rocket yesterday has forced local officials to evacuate nearby residents for a short time.

Earlier Wednesday, Firefly Aerospace tweeted an image of a first stage for the company’s Alpha rocket on a vertical test stand at the Briggs facility. In the tweet, Firefly wrote that teams were loading liquid oxygen into a test version of the company’s Alpha booster in preparation for the first hotfire qualification test of the rocket’s first stage.

Firefly later deleted the tweet after local authorities responded to reports of an “explosion” at the test facility in Central Texas, and ordered the closure of roads in the area and the evacuation of nearby residents.

Officials later clarified that no explosion occurred. Tom Markusic, Firefly’s CEO, told KXAN — the NBC television affiliate in Austin — that a fuel leak resulted in a small fire on the test stand. [emphasis mine]

This is not good for the company’s planned launch schedule, which presently calls for the first operational flight in 2020.

At the same time, the company announced the signing of a contract today with a company that will act as a coordinator scheduling multiple smallsat customers on the rocket.

Firefly reschedules first rocket launch for April

Capitalism in space: Due to a number of engineering issues, Firefly Aerospace has pushed back the first launch of its Alpha rocket from March to April, 2020.

In particular, figuring out the two-stage rocket’s avionics system “gave us fits,” Firefly CEO Tom Markusic told Space.com in a recent interview. That’s because the company was originally hoping to make Alpha’s flight-termination system fully autonomous, he explained.

When the vendor couldn’t qualify that advanced system in time, the vendor switched to the usual “human in the loop” system. But waiting for parts pushed back Firefly’s December 2019 launch time frame to something closer to March 2020. Firefly then chose to take a little more time for further refinements and is now aiming for April 2020 for the first launch of the 95-foot-tall (29 meters) rocket, Markusic said.

According to the article at the link, the company plans two other launches in 2020. We shall see if that pans out.

Firefly completes full duration test of second stage engine

Capitalism in space: Firefly Aerospace has successfully completed a full duration static test fire of the second stage engine of its Alpha rocket.

During the test, all of the second stage’s flight avionics, structures, and propulsion systems were subjected to a sustained firing consistent with a normal flight mission. According to Firefly, preliminary analysis of data from the test show that all of the rocket’s systems performed nominally, and a post-test inspection revealed no observable degradation of the stage systems.

Firefly is attempting to complete development of its Alpha rocket, which has a capacity of up to 1 ton to low-Earth orbit, for a launch by the end of this year from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The company could reach another milestone as early as August, when Firefly anticipates performing the first long-duration test of the Alpha rocket’s first stage.

If the company succeeds in completing an orbital launch by the end of 2019, they will have leaped from the back of the pack to become one of the leaders in the smallsat rocket industry, in an incredibly short time. The company was thought dead in 2016 after a lawsuit appeared to bankrupt it. Since then it obtained significant new capital and has risen from the ashes, at a speed that appears astonishing.

Firefly inks big launch contract

Capitalism in space: The smallsat rocket company Firefly has signed a launch contact with an Italian satellite company to launch 15 of its satellites.

Firefly Aerospace Inc. has agreed to provide an Italian company 15 rides to space over a five-year period, the Cedar Park startup announced March 4. The agreement enables D-Orbit SpA to purchase room on future flights of Firefly’s Alpha rocket. The deal allows the Italian satellite company to “purchase, market and resell launch vehicle capacity, and to provide logistics support and integration activities at its operational premises in Italy,” according to the announcement.

I am certain that D-Orbit has options to back out and sign with other rocket companies should Firefly fall behind in its development of Alpha, which they say will have its first launch before the end of this year. Nonetheless, this contract bodes well for the company, as it indicates that others have faith in them.

Firefly to build and launch from Florida

Capitalism in space: The smallsat rocket company Firefly Aerospace announced yesterday that it will build its rocket manufacturing facility at Cape Canaveral, as well as launch from there.

Texas-based launch startup Firefly Aerospace finally revealed its plan to build a manufacturing facility near Kennedy Space Center and outfit the Air Force’s Space Launch Complex 20 in Cape Canaveral for its two core launch vehicles — one of the first manufacturing facilities of its kind in the Sunshine State.

Firefly was shrouded under the codename “Maricopa” for months as Space Florida, the state’s space development agency, trickled out details of a deal that includes an 18-acre chunk of Exploration Park and 28 acres at LC20. The value of the deal is $52 million, and Firefly vows to put 200 of its 300 employees in the Cape.

Firefly’s first rocket, Alpha, will cost $15 million per launch, which means it will either launch a larger bunch of smallsats or they will be serving the larger smallsats in this new industry.

Smallsat rocket company Firefly gets contract

Capitalism in space: The smallsat rocket company Firefly Aerospace had gotten a six-launch contract from Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL).

Firefly Aerospace, Inc. (Firefly), a developer of orbital launch vehicles for the small to medium satellite market, announced today the execution of a Launch Services Agreement (LSA) with Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL) for use of the Firefly Alpha launch vehicle.

“Firefly is pleased to enter into an LSA with SSTL to provide up to six Alpha launches from 2020 through 2022,” said Firefly CEO Dr. Tom Markusic. “The Alpha launch vehicle allows for deployment of SSTL satellites as a primary payload to their preferred orbit, rather than flying as a secondary payload on a larger launch vehicle.”

This company had been driven into bankruptcy by a Virgin Galactic lawsuit. It has now risen from the dead. Its rocket has not yet flown, but that it got a launch contract indicates some confidence in them by Surrey. The company says it will do the first launch late in 2019, and become operational by 2020.

Firefly Aerospace shows off its Lightning-1 rocket engine

Capitalism in space: Firefly Aerospace earlier this week did a demonstration static fire test of its Lightning-1 rocket engine, designed as the upper stage engine for its Alpha rocket.

Currently under development, the engine will power the upper stage of the company’s 95-foot-tall (29-meter-tall), two-stage Firefly Alpha rocket. The full vehicle will be capable of sending some 2,200 pounds (1000 kilograms) into low-Earth orbit (LEO) for about $10 million. Additionally, it will be able to send 1,300 pounds (600 kilograms) into a 310-mile (500-kilometer) Sun-synchronous orbit.

These numbers suggest to me that this rocket will be comparable to India’s PSLV. At $10 million per launch, it will beat everyone else in that rocket class. They expect to do their first test orbital launch sometime in late 2019.

Firefly Aerospace had gone bankrupt because of a successful lawsuit against it by Virgin Galactic. It then found new backers and came back from the dead.