WASHINGTON — Firefly Aerospace is gearing up for the second launch of its Alpha rocket in late August or early September, hoping a successful mission could enable a “step change” in the company’s operations.
The second Alpha rocket is currently on the company’s launch site at California’s Vandenberg Space Force Base as the company makes final preparations for launch. The first Alpha rocket was launched from there in September 2021, but was unable to reach orbit when one of the first stage engines stalled shortly after launch.
“Our goal is to be able to launch in the next 45 to 60 days,” Firefly interim director Peter Schumacher said in a recent interview. “It’s really pending range availability at this point.”
The missile itself is ready to fly, he said, aside from conducting a wet dress rehearsal and a static fire test, which he said would be done within two weeks of launch. The company is waiting for a launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration, which in turn is contingent on the approval of a new debris model for the missile.
The revised debris model came after the first Alpha rocket exploded in flight when the range activated its flight termination system. Debris from the missile, mainly made of carbon composite materials, fell out of range, including in nearby communities, although no damage was reported.
“We have the unfortunate precedent of being the first large composite rocket to ever end,” he said. Earlier debris models, including the one used for that flight, were based on metal rockets. “So when we stopped, some pieces fell outside where this model predicted.”
Schumacher said Firefly has been working with the FAA and an unnamed third party to develop a revised debris model that better handles composite materials. The revised model, which now matches its initial launch behavior, is awaiting final approval from the FAA and the Western Range.
Once the model is approved and licensed, Firefly awaits a launch opportunity at Vandenberg. Schumacher said the company will have to work around a few planned government launches, such as a Delta 4 Heavy launch of a National Reconnaissance Office payload. “If they don’t move, we’ll probably be looking at a launch in the first or second week of September,” he said. “If those launches are delayed by the government for whatever reason, we may be able to sneak into the last week of August.”
In addition to correcting the engine problem that caused the initial launch to fail, he said the company has adopted a more rigorous approach to production in general. “It’s about making sure that the second flight, the product sitting there, is absolutely the best product we can produce,” he said. “This rigor is really what makes the difference and what gives us confidence that we think flight two will be successful.”
Future Launches and NASA
If the upcoming launch is successful, Firefly is planning another launch this year. A mission for NASA under a Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS) demonstration contract awarded in December 2020, worth $9.8 million, will launch a series of NASA cubes into orbit as early as November.
Schumacher said the company expects up to six launches in 2023. To achieve that higher flight speed, the company is conducting “lean manufacturing exercises” and working with its supply chain to ensure a steady supply of external components. “Just making sure we have a head start on long-term orders,” he said, “and making sure our in-house production is as lean as possible and can meet the rates we need.”
One change is that the company will build missiles to meet a schedule rather than a specific mission. “I get the idea to the company that we need a rocket every two to three months,” he said. “I instructed the business development team to sell that rocket. So whether we have a paying customer or not, we will have a rocket ready.”
The company believes this approach could help the company win contracts such as the Tactically Responsive Space 3 mission being competed by the US Space Force to launch a payload at short notice. “We need a rocket for that,” he said.
Firefly is also being added to a NASA small launch contract. Despite the VCLS award, the company was not among the dozen launch providers NASA selected in January for its Venture-Class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare (VADR) contract, making them eligible to compete for future NASA smallsat launches. The NASA source selection statement for VADR only stated that the agency contractor for the tender concluded that Firefly was not eligible for a prize.
Schumacher said this stemmed from a December request by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) from that company, its largest shareholder, Ukrainian-born entrepreneur Max Polyakov, to divest its stake in the company. . Polyakov sold his shares in the company to AE Industrial Partners in February.
“When CFIUS happened, we were forced to end all negotiations with NASA,” he said. “Once we got over our CFIUS issues, the company contacted NASA again about VADR. Over the past few months, we’ve been negotiating with them and we’ve finally been able to get back on that contract.”
nasa, in a tender file dated 1 Julyannounced its intention to add Firefly to the VADR contract vehicle, saying only one other company with the capability to launch payloads weighing between 500 and 1,000 kilograms was on the contract.
Schumacher, a partner at AE Industrial Partners, became interim CEO on June 16 after Tom Markusic, who was previously CEO, stepped down to become chief technical advisor while he remained on the board.
Schumacher said the company is working quickly to find a permanent replacement by hiring an executive search firm, Korn Ferry, to identify potential candidates. Interviews have been started with a number of those candidates. “We aim to have the CEO elected ideally by the end of July and then sometime in mid-August.”
In his short time leading Firefly, he said he had a better understanding of both the company and the wider launch industry. “The more I learn, the more excited I am about where Firefly is,” he said, referring to the company’s technology and maturity. “Once we demonstrate our technology on this flight, I think the market will see what I see where we are versus our competitors, and be quite impressed with what we’ve been quietly doing over the past year.”