Alpha explosion
Firefly Aerospace's Alpha rocket explodes about two minutes after liftoff Sept. 2 from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. Credit: SpaceNews/Jeff Foust

Updated 7:35 a.m. Eastern Sept. 3 with Space Force, Firefly statements.

VANDENBERG SPACE FORCE BASE, Calif. — Firefly Aerospace’s first launch of its Alpha rocket ended in failure when the rocket exploded two and a half minutes after liftoff Sept. 2

The Alpha rocket lifted off from Space Launch Complex 2 here at 9:59 p.m. Eastern. A first launch attempt at 9 p.m. Eastern was aborted in the final seconds of the countdown for unspecified technical reasons, but launch controllers reset the countdown for a second launch attempt.

About two and a half minutes after liftoff, the rocket appeared to tumble and then explode. “Alpha experienced an anomaly during first stage ascent that resulted in the loss of the vehicle,” Firefly tweeted.

“While it’s too early to draw conclusions as to the root cause, we will be diligent in our investigation, in partnership with the FAA and Vandenberg Space Force Base,” the company said in a later statement. “While we did not meet all of our mission objectives, we did achieve a number of them: successful first stage ignition, liftoff of the pad, progression to supersonic speed, and we obtained a substantial amount of flight data.”

In a separate statement, Space Launch Delta 30 at Vandenberg said it terminated the launch. Both the company and the Space force said there were no injuries, although there are eyewitness accounts of debris from the rocket falling in the town of Orcutt, California, just north of Vandenberg.

The rocket’s first stage may have been underperforming. According to a mission overview distributed by Firefly before the launch, the vehicle was supposed to reach the speed of Mach 1 67 seconds after liftoff, followed by maximum dynamic pressure nine seconds later. However, launch controllers did not report that the vehicle was supersonic until 2 minutes and 20 seconds after liftoff, about 10 seconds before the vehicle exploded.

Company executives emphasized before the launch that the flight was primarily a test. “Our really big goal is to get Alpha to space. If we can get to orbit, even better,” said Lauren Lyons, chief operating officer of Firefly, during a Sept. 1 tour of the company’s launch control center. “Our goals are to collect as much data as we possibly can and take Alpha as far as it can go.”

The Alpha was carrying about 92 kilograms of payloads on what it called the Dedicated Research and Educational Accelerator Mission (DREAM). That included several cubesats, technology demonstrations of a plasma thruster and drag deorbit sail, and “non-technical” payloads like photos and memorabilia.

The missions was designed to fly to the west, rather than to the south as is typical for polar-orbit launches from Vandenberg. While that reduced the payload performance for the mission, it made range safety simpler for an untried rocket.

“If we were flying due south, we’d have a very tight corridor we’d have to go down though,” said Tom Markusic, chief executive of Firefly, in a Sept. 1 interview at the pad. “Here, we have a very wide corridor so that, if the vehicle’s not tracking quite right, it gives us an opportunity to get back on track without having to terminate the mission.”

“It’s a flight test, so getting data is success,” he said. “The more data we get, the better.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...