Tom Markusic
“I don’t have any insight into it, but I believe ... the plane changes [for SpaceX’s satellites] would be accomplished using electric propulsion as another option to having dedicated smallsat launches,” said Tom Markusic, founder of Firefly Space Systems. Credit: Christopher Dydyk

Firefly Space Systems is part of a new wave of launch services startups looking to capitalize on a small-satellite boom fueled, at least in part, by a combination of advances in microelectronics technology and Silicon Valley investment capital.

The company’s founder, Tom Markusic, believes the boom is still in its early stages and envisions the day when companies like Google fulfill long-articulated but unrealized visions of darkening the skies with satellites. Cheap access to space will help make that vision a reality, he says.

The propulsion expert has a solid “new space” pedigree that includes stints at Space Exploration Technologies Corp., the most successful of them all to date, Blue Origin and, most recently, Virgin Galactic, which aims to launch small satellites in addition to taking paying passengers to suborbital space. But he spent the first half of his 18-year career working as a civilian for the U.S. Air Force and NASA, which until fairly recently were unapologetic bastions of traditional space.

Along with former SpaceX and Virgin Galactic colleagues, Markusic founded Firefly in January because he did not believe his now-former employers were doing enough to address the small-satellite launch market.

As envisioned, the endgame for Firefly looks something like this: a fleet of what Markusic calls Delta reusable spaceplanes capable of lofting about 400 kilograms to an equatorial orbit about 340 kilometers up — alternatively, about 175 kilograms to a 600-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit — for under $1 million a shot. For the near term, however, the company is focusing on an expendable pathfinder rocket, fueled by liquid natural gas and dubbed Alpha, that can reach those orbits for around $8 million or $9 million a launch.

Right now Firefly is in fundraising mode. The company needs “the better part of $100 million,” all of which will be raised privately, to crank out three to five Alpha rockets and launch the first to orbit in “mid- to late 2017,” Markusic says.

Markusic spoke recently with SpaceNews staff writer Dan Leone.

You have worked for, and quit, space companies whose stars seem to be on the rise. Why risk it all on a startup?

When I left SpaceX in 2011, I left because I really felt that there needed to be more SpaceX’s. It can’t just be about one company doing things differently; this has to be a movement, and I wanted to help drive a movement. I was at Blue Origin and Virgin, and now I have several former SpaceX-ers and several former Virgin Galactic people at Firefly who have made the journey with me. I did some good work at those companies, but I didn’t feel like they were doing the things to be part of a larger movement. In particular, I thought that the small-satelllite market was being underserved and not properly addressed, and I feel strongly that it is an area that would help with the movement.

What do you think will drive growth in the small-satellite launch market?

Constellations replacing larger satellites is one thing that I see all over the place. The broadband communications market being serviced by constellations of satellites is the one that’s really going to see a lot of launch activity. You see discussions in the blogosphere about Google possibly being interested in constellations of satellites for that purpose. Earth observation is also becoming a big thing and real-time Earth observation could be a huge area. Look at Planet Labs and Skybox Imaging. If people want to start selling real-time data on things moving around on the ground, that would require a lot of assets and would be another emerging market for us.

How many small-satellite launches do you envision Firefly performing per year once the company is in full swing?

This is one of those “build-it-and-they-will-come” types of things. You can’t say there are 50 launches available today, but if there are launches available with a price of single-digit millions, how many will come? We think on the order of 30 a year is reasonable. We’ll have the capability in house to do about 50 per year. I want to do mass production. We’re designing for the capability to build a vehicle per week.

Have you booked any launches yet?

We have a few soft commitments, some letters of intent. We don’t have any hard contracts at this point.

How many employees does Firefly have right now?

We have about 30 people. By the time we do our first orbital launch I believe we’ll be at about 150 people. We’re building three facilities right now, all around Austin, Texas. Two of them, our test site and main manufacturing plant, will be co-located in a town called Briggs, Texas. We just acquired a 200-acre [roughly 4,000-square-meter] plot of land there, and we’ll be building at the test site after we’ve successfully flown. Also, with a $1.2 million incentive from the city of Cedar Park, Texas, we’re setting up an engineering facility to do research and development (R&D) separate from our manufacturing site. That facility will have all the engineers and we’ll build our first vehicle prototype there, before we open the main manufacturing plant. I think it’s super important to decouple what’s going on in R&D from production. I think that’s a mistake we made at SpaceX. You have the current generation and the next generation of vehicles stepping on each other’s toes in the same facility.

What are the next steps here?

The first step is getting the company set up, and the first round of financing for that was done through founders and friends and family. The next round is raising money for technology development so we can demonstrate our critical, higher-risk technologies: high-pressure cryogenic composite tanks, and our aerospike Lumen engine. To raise money for that, we’re sort of crowdsourcing multimillionaires. It’s more money per contributor than what you’d get on Kickstarter or something. That will get us to retiring all our high-risk technology, which we want to do in 2015. At the end of the first quarter or beginning of the second quarter of 2015, we’ll do the first hot-fire test of our engine. In the second quarter of 2015, we’ll test our first full-scale composite tank with a fully pressurized cryogenic load.

When do you envision flight testing to start?

Flights will start happening probably in the 2016 time frame. There are places like Spaceport America in New Mexico, or Midland, Texas, with pretty low costs and regulations where we could do suborbital checkout flights. And for those flights we’ll be looking for more funding from venture capitalists and institutional investors. Then beyond the suborbital flights there will have to be another series of investment for the first orbital flights.

Which launch sites are you considering for revenue-generating commercial launches?

I think the northern launch sites like Kodiak, Alaska, are attractive to us. We hired a veteran SpaceX launch guy, Bradley Obrocto, who had worked at SpaceX since 2008 at places like Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific — everywhere, really. His first task will be to go out and look and see where we can get the best deal.

How does Firefly plan to evolve from the single-core, expendable Alpha rocket into the more aircraft-like Delta?

Alpha is just the simplest rocket we can build the soonest to establish that we can go to space. Next will be Beta, which we want to service the whole small-satellite range, up to a metric ton. Beta would use the same technologies as Alpha, except it’s parallel-staged. Beta looks like a Falcon Heavy Jr. or a Delta Heavy Jr., with three cores from Alpha. Next is Gamma, which is basically a Beta vehicle with side boosters that can be recovered. How they’re recovered I’m not sure yet. The boosters could be recovered with wings — a glide-back — or parachutes. Ultimately where we’d like to go is to have a reusable flyback stage, and that is our Delta vehicle, which looks more like a rocketplane — a rocketplane augmented with airbreathing propulsion that can do these sub-million-dollar smallsat launches. Delta might also be a platform to do point-to-point passenger travel. But that’s an aspirational thing right now; it’s something we don’t work on at all.

Where did the name “Firefly” come from?

I just kind of have this vision of the future with groups of people going to Mars, and all these rocket engines lighting up in the sky, like a bunch of fireflies.

Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.