In Science and Space: Most of the enthusiasm for small rockets is focused on very small ones that can carry hundreds, sometimes even tens of kilograms into low earth orbit. Some of them have been very successful, like Rocket Lab’s Electron, which has had his five launches in his first seven months of the year. Other: Astra’s Rocket 3 failed in five of his seven orbital launch attempts, including his latest launch in June, which carried two of his NASA Earth Science CubeSats.
Alpha second chance
Last September, Firefly’s first Alpha took off from the Vandenberg Space Force Base, and it was doomed almost immediately. Fifteen seconds after takeoff, one of his four first stage engines failed. This is because the company later determined that a bad electrical connection was what caused the propellant valve to close. The rocket continued for two minutes until he reached maximum dynamic pressure, causing him to fall. The range limiting system then blew up the missile. The solution to this particular problem was simple, but the company has spent time since failing to improve its rocket manufacturing. Firefly interim CEO Peter Schumacher said in an interview in July: “It’s about making sure the product out there is the best we can produce.”
In the coming months, however, industry interest will shift to a larger class of rockets, sometimes called “mini-launchers,” capable of launching about a ton into orbit. Firefly Aerospace is gearing up for his second Alpha launch a year after his failed first flight, but there are more changes to the company than the rocket. Two other companies, ABL Space Systems and Relativity Space, are gearing up for their first launches.
The second Alpha is in the Vandenberg hangar, wet-dressed about two weeks before launch, according to Schumacher, ready for launch, except that he conducts rehearsals and static fire tests. Firefly is currently awaiting a launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration, after which it will work on other launches at Vandenberg.
The Firefly itself has arguably changed more in the last year than its Alpha rocket. Ukrainian entrepreneur Max Polyakov, who saved the former Firefly Space Systems from Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2017, sold a majority stake in the company in December 2021 at the request of the US Committee on Foreign Investment (CFIUS). Firefly did not explain the reason for the CFIUS request, but speculated it was related to heightened tensions ahead of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Polyakov’s Noosphere Venture Partners sold his Firefly ownership to his AE Industrial Partners (AEI) in February. AE Industrial Partners through the acquisition of multiple space technology companies in 2020. He founded Redwire Space and has invested in Sierra Space, Terran Orbital and Virgin Orbit. AEI led a $75 million Series B round raised by Firefly in March. In June, Firefly co-founder Tom Markusic announced that he was stepping down as CEO, but would remain on the company’s board of directors and serve as chief technical advisor. Schumacher, partner of AEI, has been appointed interim managing director.
He made it clear in an interview that he does not intend to lead Firefly for long. With the goal of appointing a new chief executive by mid-August, the company hired recruiter Korn Ferry to find candidates for the position. Meanwhile, Schumacher said Firefly is exploring ways to leverage other AEI portfolio companies. This included bringing in executives from Atlas Aerospace, a company that makes aircraft parts such as doors for Boeing 737s. “They cut across all aspects of machining, manufacturing and assembling his Firefly and brought their expertise to life,” he said. “They are working to cut efficiency and turnaround times to a quarter of his previous levels.” Firefly needs this efficiency as it aims to increase its launch rate in 2023. If the upcoming alpha launch is successful, Firefly expects another alpha launch later this year, carrying CubeSats under contract through NASA’s Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS) program. The company plans up to six launches in 2023.
Schumacher said Firefly does not build rockets once a contract is signed, but builds them according to a schedule and then finds a customer. “I’m getting a company that needs a rocket that he builds every two to three months,” he said. “We then told our business development team to sell this rocket. Whether or not we have paying customers, the rocket is ready.”