Firefly gears up for second Alpha launch

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WASHINGTON — Firefly Aerospace is preparing for the second launch of its Alpha rocket in late August or early September, hoping that a successful mission can enable a “step change” in activity for the company.

The second Alpha rocket is currently at the company’s launch site at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California as the company makes final preparations for the launch. The first Alpha rocket launched from there in September 2021 but failed to reach orbit when one of its first first-stage engines shut down shortly after liftoff.

“Our target is in the next 45 to 60 days of being able to launch,” Peter Schumacher, interim chief executive of Firefly, said in a recent interview. “It’s really pending, at this point, range availability.”

The rocket itself is ready for flight, he said, other than performing a wet dress rehearsal and a static fire test, which he said would be done within two weeks of launch. The company is waiting on a launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration, which in turn depends on approval of a new debris model for the rocket.

The revised debris model came after the first Alpha rocket exploded in flight when the range activated its flight termination system. Debris from the rocket, made primarily of carbon composite materials, fell outside of the range, including in nearby communities, although no damage was reported.

“We have the unfortunate precedent of being the first large composite rocket ever to be terminated,” he said. Previous debris models, including the one used for that flight, were based on metallic rockets. “So when we did terminate, some of the 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 fits the behavior seen on the first launch, is pending final approval by the FAA and the Western Range.

Once the model is approved and a license awarded, Firefly will wait for a launch opportunity at Vandenberg. Schumacher said the company will have to work around a few government launches scheduled, 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 government launches are delayed for any reason, we might be able to sneak into the last week of August.”

Besides correcting the engine problem that caused the first launch to fail, he said the company has adopted a more rigorous approach to manufacturing overall. “It’s around ensuring that the second flight, the product that is sitting out there, is the absolute best product that we can produce,” he said. “This rigor is really what is the difference and what is giving us the confidence that we think flight two is going to be successful.”

Future launches and NASA

If the upcoming launch is successful, Firefly plans one more launch this year. A mission for NASA under a Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS) demonstration contract awarded in December 2020, valued at $9.8 million, will carry a set of NASA cubesats to orbit as soon as November.

Schumacher said the company is projecting up to six launches in 2023. To achieve that higher flight rate, the company is performing “lean manufacturing exercises” as well as working with its supply chain to ensure a steady supply of external components. “Just making sure we’re getting ahead of long-lead ordering,” he said, “and ensuring that our internal manufacturing is as lean as possible and can meet the rates that we need.”

One change is that the company will be building rockets to meet a schedule rather than a specific mission. “I’m getting the company on the mindset of we need a rocket manufactured every two to three months,” he said. “I put it on the business development team to go and sell that rocket. So regardless of whether or not we have a paying customer, we’re going to have a rocket ready.”

The company believes that approach could help it win business such as the Tactically Responsive Space 3 mission being competing by the U.S. Space Force to launch a payload on short notice. “That’s going to require us to have a rocket sitting around,” he said.

Firefly is also in the process of getting added to a NASA contract for small launches. Despite its 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, which makes them eligible to compete for future NASA smallsat launches. The NASA source selection statement for VADR stated only that the agency’s contracting officer for the procurement concluded Firefly was ineligible for an award.

Schumacher said that stemmed from a request by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) in December that company’s largest shareholder, Ukrainian-born entrepreneur Max Polyakov, divest his stake in the company. Polyakov sold his shares in the company to AE Industrial Partners in February.

“When CFIUS happened, we were forced to cease all negotiations with NASA,” he said. “As soon as we overcame our CFIUS issues, the company reengaged with NASA on VADR. Over the last few months, we’ve been negotiating with them and finally were able to get back on that contract.”

NASA, in a July 1 procurement filing, announced its intent to add Firefly to the VADR contract vehicle, saying that only one other company with the ability to launch payloads weighing between 500 and 1,000 kilograms was on the contract.

Company leadership

Schumacher, a partner at AE Industrial Partners, became interim chief executive June 16 after Tom Markusic, who has been chief executive, stepped down to become chief technical adviser while staying on the board.

Schumacher said the company is working quickly to find a permanent replacement, hiring an executive search firm, Korn Ferry, to identify potential candidates. Interviews of some of those candidates have started. “We’re targeting to have the CEO ideally chosen by the end of July and then in place sometime mid-August.”

In his short time running Firefly, he said he had a better understanding of both the company and the broader launch industry. “The more I learn, the more excited I am about where Firefly is,” he said, citing the company’s technology and maturity. “Once we demonstrate our technology on this flight, I think the market is going to see what I see where we are relative to our competitors, and be quite impressed with what we’ve done quietly over the last year.”