Spotlight | Firefly Space Systems
SAN FRANCISCO — At least 25 companies have announced plans to build rockets to meet the growing demand for small-satellite launches, but Firefly Space Systems does not plan to blend into that pack.
“The driving theme of our company is to distinguish ourselves as soon as possible from the crowd that talks about doing this and to join an elite group of people that can actually field technology to get things to space,” said Thomas Markusic, Firefly chief executive.
Markusic, a propulsion engineer who worked at NASA, the U.S. Air Force, SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin before founding Firefly, plans to build a family of simple expendable rockets offering dedicated rides for satellites weighing less than 1,000 kilograms.
“Think of this as the Model T of rockets, a simple widely used vehicle for getting from point to point, or in this case getting to space,” he said.
Firefly’s initial launch vehicle, Firefly Alpha, an all-composite rocket with a pressure-fed aerospike engine, is designed to send 400 kilogram payloads into low Earth orbit or 200 kilograms into sun-synchronous orbit for $8 million. Firefly plans to use cellphone technology to send telemetry data from the ascending rocket. “We are using commercial electronics technology in our avionics to a larger extent than anyone has ever done before,” Markusic said.
Markusic left his job as Virgin Galactic’s vice president for propulsion in December 2013 to found Firefly because he saw a dearth of launch options for the burgeoning small-satellite market. “There is great competition and cost reduction in the medium- to heavy-lift area, but there’s very little that’s available in the small class,” he said. “Firefly and other companies popping up are aiming to fill that gap.”
In October, NASA announced the award of fixed-price contracts to Firefly, Los Angeles-based Rocket Lab and Virgin Galactic of Long Beach, California, to provide dedicated rides into orbit for the cubesats NASA transports under its Cubesat Launch Initiative. NASA plans to pay Firefly $5.5 million, Virgin Galactic $4.7 million and Rocket Lab $6.95 million for launches scheduled to occur by April 2018.
To date, cubesats have flown primarily as secondary payloads on larger rockets, which meant their builders had little control over the launch timing or orbital destination. While those piggyback rides were welcomed by cubesat pioneers eager to test components or conduct scientific research, some of the entrepreneurs building miniature satellites to gather data or relay communications are eager for rides to specific altitudes and inclinations.
Firefly Space Systems at a Glance
Established: January 2014
Top Official: Thomas Markusic, chief executive
Location: Cedar Park, Texas
“When you are riding as a secondary payload on a large launch vehicle, you sometimes have to wait a couple of years and you are subject to the technical specifications of that launch,” said Amir Blachman, Space Angels Network managing director in Los Angeles. “Whereas if you can pay to get a custom launch for a smaller payload, you can tailor the timing and all the other elements of the mission to your specific needs.”
Firefly executives say they will attract customers with low launch prices and strong customer service. The company plans to enable a customers to track the progress of their launch vehicle through its production cycle and, if possible, to watch the launch in virtual reality.
“The customer side of the launch vehicle market has been ignored for years,” said Maureen Gannon, Firefly business development vice president. “We want to be a leader in customer experience.”
After establishing its business with Firefly Alpha, the company plans to offer multiple space transportation vehicles. “Firefly Alpha is the first step toward a next generation of larger vehicles with increased payload capability and reusability,” Gannon said.
One of the benefits of starting the company by building a small rocket is the capital investment. “From a capital standpoint, this type of program is available to more people than the mega programs like SpaceX is doing,” Blachman said.
“The cost does not scale linearly with vehicle size,” Markusic said, adding that a vehicle twice as large might cost eight times as much to develop because it would require custom machine tools.
Firefly plans to raise roughly $100 million to build and launch Firefly Alpha. Through a seed round, the company raised between $10 million and $20 million. The company plans to raise the balance through Series A and B funding rounds.
Firefly has 61 employees and plans to have a staff of about 150 when it begins sending satellites into orbit in 2018. Firefly received a $1.2 million economic incentive package from Cedar Park, Texas, where the company built a 1,850-square-meter research and development facility as well as a 80-hectare test site.
In Firefly’s first year and a half, its engineers have tackled some of the company’s greatest technical risks. In September, Firefly announced its first successful ground test of its rocket engine.
By 2017, Firefly plans to begin conducting suborbital launches. “We will learn a lot about the vehicle so when we have someone’s precious payload on the top, it will not be the first time this thing has ever performed,” Markusic said.
Firefly plans to conduct is first orbital flight in March 2018, an ambitious goal for a company established in 2014.
“When I started the company, I committed myself to the idea that we would be very successful very quickly or we would fail very quickly,” Markusic said. “The goal is not to build a company that can sustain itself for 10 years and never get to space. The goal of the company is to get to space in three or four years or not exist.”