WASHINGTON — The chief executive of Firefly Aerospace Bill Weber said Feb. 7 the company is preparing to launch its first mission for the U.S. Space Force in May. The mission will attempt to demonstrate industry capabilities to send a payload to orbit on 24 hours’ notice.

Firefly in September won a $17.6 million contract to launch a Millennium Space small satellite to low Earth orbit, a so-called Tactically Responsive Space mission that is part of a broader effort by the U.S. Space Force to accelerate the timeline for deploying payloads to orbit. 

Speaking at the SmallSat Symposium in Mountain View, California, Weber said the company views the upcoming mission as an opportunity to show it can provide reliable and predictable launch services not just to the military but to all customers.

“Responsive space is not just a government mission,” Weber said. “Predictability, full rate production, dependability, schedule, that’s what we’re trying to weave into the business.”

Firefly’s expendable Alpha small launcher made its first launch attempt in September 2021 but the vehicle did not reach orbit as one of the first stage engines failed during ascent. A second test flight in October 2022 successfully reached orbit although the satellites were deployed in lower orbits than originally planned. 

Small launchers face tough market

The Space Force’s Tactically Responsive Space program is viewed as a potential lifeline for small vehicles that are facing lagging demand in the commercial sector in large part due to the popularity of SpaceX’s big-rocket rideshares.

Weber said there is still a demand for dedicated vehicles to reach specific orbits and Firefly is not competing for the same customers that are buying rides on SpaceX’s Transporter missions.  

Virgin Orbit’s chief executive Dan Hart said his company intends to compete for Tactically Responsive Space and other national security missions.

“The idea of how to acquire space capabilities for national security is changing” due to the geopolitical environment, Hart said at the symposium.

Traditionally the military plans its satellite launches years or decades in advance. But with satellites now considered military targets, there will be times when the military might need a satellite launched immediately to replace damaged assets. “That’s a new idea,” Hart said, and DoD needs the launch infrastructure to support that.

Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne is an air-launched rocket that deploys from a modified Boeing 747 carrier aircraft at high altitude. The vehicle flew four successful missions but its latest launch from the United Kingdom Jan. 9 failed to reach orbit.

Adam Spice, chief financial officer of Rocket Lab, said the company considers the U.S. government the main customer for its Electron small launch vehicle. “In order for companies to be viable and healthy, you’ve got to look outside of those science experiments, the one offs, you really got to start building a solid base of recurring launches, which is really today largely government.”

Today, he added, “I think it’s very important to have a strong government relations function in the company.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...