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.

NASA awards Firefly lunar contract

Capitalism in space: NASA yesterday announced that it has awarded the new smallsat rocket company Firefly a $93 million contract to build a lunar lander for delivering scientific payloads to the Moon’s surface.

This is the first delivery awarded to Firefly Aerospace, which will provide the lunar delivery service using its Blue Ghost lander, which the company designed and developed at its Cedar Park facility. This facility also will house the integration of NASA and any non-NASA payloads, and also will serve as the company’s mission operations center for the 2023 delivery.

The lander is based on the design of Israel’s Beresheet lunar lander that failed in its landing attempt in 2019. After that failure a group of Israeli engineers from that project formed their own company, and partnered with Firefly to build a new lander, which is now dubbed Blue Ghost.

The NASA contract itself replaces OrbitBeyond, which had won a lunar landing contract initially but had backed out in 2019.

Finally, the timing of this announcement immediately after Firefly had revamped its board of directors to remove its main Ukrainian backer from an obvious management position is most telling. Suggests to me that they did that revamping in direct response to NASA’s concerns, and once done NASA could then move forward with the contract award.

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.

Old launch tower burns down at Firefliy launchpad at Vandenberg

Capitalism in space: Apparently workers dismantling the old launch tower at Firefliy’s new launchpad at Vandenberg started a fire that burned the tower down.

A photo showing the former Delta II rocket’s Space Launch Complex-2 facility with flames and a huge column of black smoke rising from the distinctive blue tower began circulating on social media sites on Thursday night.

The launch site, most recently used for liftoffs of United Launch Alliance’s Delta II rockets, has been handed over to Texas-based Firefly Aerospace, which is developing a new family of rockets as an economical way to carry small- to medium-sized satellites into space.

The firm has a long-term lease to use the site with hopes of saving money by using some of the existing facilities. Firefly has plans to dismantle the historic tower, and a contractor armed with welding equipment reportedly sparked the blaze Thursday.

No word yet on whether this fire will delay Firefly’s planned first launch in the spring.

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.
» Read more

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.

The four companies (one a Chinese government operation) aiming for first orbital launch in 2020

Link here. The three private companies are Astra, Firefly, and Virgin Orbit. The fake Chinese private company is Expace.

Of the four, only Firefly has not yet attempted to launch, and in many ways remains the dark horse in this competition, coming out of bankruptcy to become reborn with a new investor. All three of the American private companies however have made it clear they intend to launch before the end of the year. The Chinese company’s plans are unknown (not surprisingly). Astra will be first, with its next launch attempt set for later this month.

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.

Original investors sue Firefly

Capitalism in space: The original investors in Firefly Aerospace, cut out when the company went bankrupt, have filed suit against the reborn company.

A group of original shareholders in the defunct Firefly Space Systems have accused co-founder and CEO Tom Markusic of fraudulently conspiring with Ukrainian billionaire Maxym Polyakov to force the rocket company into bankruptcy in 2017 and reconstitute it under a nearly identical name without giving them any stake in the new venture.

Markusic “betrayed the trust of his original co-founders and investors and committed fraud to cut them out of his aerospace company. Instead of managing the operations of the Original Firefly, a revolutionary rocket company with endless potential, Markusic schemed with…Maxym Polyakov…to rob Plaintiffs of their investments and form a new company called Firefly Aerospace, Inc. (the ‘New Firefly’),” the plaintiffs said in a lawsuit.

The article at the link has a lot more information. Read it all.

This is also not the first time Markusic has been sued. He left Virgin Galactic to found Firefly, and was then sued by Branson’s company for stealing proprietary technology. That lawsuit was settled when Markusic agreed to not use that technology in Firefly’s rockets.

Firefly to use Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR-1 engine

Capitalism in space: Firefly has agreed to purchase Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR-1 engine to use in it larger Beta rocket, presently under development.

Though deal also includes help from Aerojet for the development of Firefly’s smaller Alpha rocket,

…the companies made clear that the centerpiece of the agreement was the potential use of the AR1 on Firefly’s Beta rocket, giving Aerojet a customer for the engine while allowing Firefly to increase the performance of the medium-class rocket.

Beta is intended to fill the niche once served by ULA’s Delta 2. “It has left an opportunity for a modern launcher to come in at perhaps a better price point than Delta 2, and can address some of the new missions coming out,” such as small geostationary orbit satellites, he said.

The target payload capacity of Beta is eight metric tons to low Earth orbit, a size Markusic explained was driven by the market and which, in turn, led to a design change for the rocket. Beta’s original design resembled the Alpha but with two additional first stages as side boosters, a triple-core design like the Delta 4 Heavy or Falcon Heavy. Beta is now a single-core vehicle with an AR1 engine in its first stage.

Aerojet Rocketdyne had gotten a lot of Congressional money to develop the AR-1 with the intent it would be used in ULA’s Vulcan rocket. ULA has instead chosen Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine, leaving Aerojet Rocketdyne high and dry without any customers. This deal might save that company, while making Firefly more competitive and robust. Moreover, because of all that money from Congress, Aerojet has probably been able to offer the engine at cut-rate prices.

A smart deal all around.

Beresheet design adopted by Firefly & Israeli private partnership

Capitalism in space: The American smallsat launch company Firefly Aerospace announced today that they will be partnering with a private Israeli company to use the design of Beresheet to build their own lunar lander for NASA.

Firefly Aerospace announced that it is partnering with Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) to create a new lunar vehicle based on the crashed spacecraft’s blueprints. Firefly says this lander will build upon “lessons learned” from the accident to ensure that the new lander does not meet the same fate.

…If Firefly does mount a lunar mission, the company’s lander, called Genesis, will leverage much of the Beresheet design as well as the IAI team’s flight experience. “Firefly Aerospace is excited to partner with Israel Aerospace Industries to provide the only NASA CLPS program flight-proven lander design,” Shea Ferring, Firefly’s vice president of mission assurance, said in a statement. The name of the lander is also a nod to Beresheet, which means “Genesis” in Hebrew.

It appears that a group of engineers from the non-profit SpaceIL, that built Beresheet, have teamed up to form their own company. It also appears that they have some rights to the spacecraft’s design, and could take them with them.

Firefly is competing for a NASA contract to land on the Moon. This deal strengthens their bid considerably.

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 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.

A report from Smallsat 2016

The competition heats up: Doug Messier has posted a nice summary of the most important presentations so far at Smallsat 2016 in Utah.

These are the rockets designed to launch cubesats or smaller. It appears that at least two companies, Firefly and Vector Space Systems, are getting close to their first flights. Both already have customers. The progress of a third company, Virgin Galactic, sounds as good, but they have talked big too many times in the past to trust them at this point. In fact, regardless of what any of these companies say, it will be actual flights that puts them on the map.

What is interesting is the number of these companies. There are a lot of them, which suggests strongly that some are going to succeed.

Smallsat rocket launchers get NASA contracts

The competition heats up: NASA this week awarded contracts ranging from $4.7 to $6.9 million to three different smallsat launch companies.

The companies are Firefly Space Systems, Rocket Lab USA, and Virgin Galactic. The second is the company that just won the contract to put a privately-built lunar rover on the moon (part of the Google Lunar X-Prize).

In the past, cubesats and other small satellites could only afford to be secondary payloads on much larger rockets. Thus, they were at the mercy of the needs of the primary payload, often resulting in significant unplanned delays before launch. This in turn acted to discourage the development of smallsats. Now, with these private launch companies designed to service them exclusively the smallsat industry should start to boom.

Note also the low cost of these contracts. The small size of cubesats and the launchers designed for them means everything about them costs much less. Putting an unmanned probe into space is thus much more affordable.

A new Falcon 1 to compete against SpaceX

The competition heats up: A rocket launch start-up created by former SpaceX engineers seeks to build their own Falcon 1 rocket for the small satellite market.

Their rocket, called Firefly, will use a number of new and old technological ideas. The highlighted words in this paragraph, however, stood out to me the most:

Just as Firefly is drawing on a lot of government research in its aerospike technology, the company is using a key element of the SpaceX Merlin engine—the pintle injector—in its new engine’s combustion chamber. Markusic, who jumped ship from NASA to SpaceX after the agency sent him to Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands to observe the first flight of the Falcon 1, says he started working on the technology—also used on the Apollo program’s lunar-descent engine —at SpaceX and when he was developing a liquid-fuel alternative to the hybrid engine used on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo. [emphasis mine]

It only took one trip to see SpaceX in operation for this NASA engineer to become a former NASA engineer.