Firefly Aerospace is inching closer to the final frontier, despite coming short of reaching space after its inaugural rocket launch ended in a fiery explosion Thursday night.
The Cedar Park-based company’s inaugural rocket, an uncrewed spacecraft dubbed Alpha, was launched for the first time but exploded before reaching low earth orbit, which is about 186 miles above Earth.
The rocket was launched from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, the same base used by a number of rocket companies, including SpaceX.
Alpha was able to lift off at 6:59 p.m. PT and soared into the sky for about two and a half minutes before suffering an anomaly and tipping over and exploding. The explosion came when Space Force officials overseeing the launch detonated the rocket because it tipped sideways and off course, the agency said in a statement.
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Firefly said it still considers the mission a success despite not reaching orbit, which would have been a rare achievement for a first launch.
“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 fight data,” Firefly said in a Thursday night statement on Twitter.
Firefly is among an emerging group of launch providers that serves the small satellite market. Founded in 2014 in Hawthorne, Calif. the company relocated to Cedar Park later that year. The company has said its goal is to become the “preeminent end-to-end space transportation company” in the small space industrial sector.
“Alpha experienced an anomaly during the first stage ascent that resulted in the loss of the vehicle. As we gather more information, additional details will be provided,” Firefly said in a tweet Thursday.
The rocket, which will have a starting price of $15 million per flight when it is in commercial service, is designed to be able to deliver payloads ranging from 1,000 kilograms to 8,000 kilograms into space. Firefly was originally scheduled to launch the Alpha rocket last year but was delayed.
Thursday was the first test of Alpha’s orbital flight capabilities. The company said it is too early to draw any conclusions about the cause of the problem but is investigating the issue in partnership with the Federal Aviation Administration and Vandenberg Space Force Base.
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Firefly live-streamed the event on Youtube through aerospace streamer Tim Dodd, who goes by Everyday Astronaut, providing viewers with a firsthand look at the launch and the ability to hear mission control, the countdown and light-hearted comments such as “burn baby burn,” “send it” and confirmation that the rocket was “pointy end up, flamy end down.”
The company cleared the area prior to the unmanned launch and noted there were no injuries related to the mission. Firefly had a four-hour window to attempt the launch, and the rocket ultimately lifted off on its second attempt. Its first attempt was canceled in countdown about an hour before.
In a statement, Firefly said it intends to use the data it collected from the test flight and apply it to future missions. It said the company’s engineers are combing through thousands of lines of ground and flight-system data to understand the issue.
The rocket’s failure to reach lower earth orbit isn’t unusual, especially for a first launch. Several of Firefly’s competitors in the satellite market — Astra, Rocket Lab, and Virgin Orbit — all saw failures on their first attempts.
Prior to the fiery flight, Firefly CEO Tom Markusic, who previously worked at both SpaceX and Blue Origin, had warned that the launch could end before the rocket reached orbit.
“This is a test flight of a rocket,” Markusic said at the time. “At SpaceX we crashed three of them before we got it right. So it’ll be an interesting show one way or another, and we’re very transparent so hopefully, we’ll be able to stream all that live, for better or worse.”
Thursday’s mission was dubbed Dedicated Research and Education Accelerator Mission, or DREAM, and Alpha carried a small payload that included photos, messages from pediatric patients, a children’s book called “Henry the Astronaut,” a robotics project created by students at Austin’s Anderson High School, DNA samples from plants, tiny satellites, a drag sail, and memorabilia and art provided by schools and educational institutions.
Firefly intends to continue to test and launch Alpha in the future. For now, the rocket is grounded until the FAA investigates and confirms the problems identified in the test flight won’t affect public safety.
The company has a number of other projects in development, including a larger rocket — called Beta — and a moon lander that’s scheduled to deliver payloads for NASA in 2023. Firefly also has plans for a reusable rocket called Gamma.
The Alpha launch comes as the rocket maker is rapidly expanding and adding hundreds more jobs in the Austin area, with the help of $4.3 million in taxpayer-funded incentives In May, the company said it was adding 682 news jobs within 10 years. It also planned to spend about $10 million to purchase a new building in Cedar Park. Firefly already has been on a hiring spree, and now has close to 500 employees.
It also announced in May that it had raised a $75 million funding round that the company was valued at $1 billion. At the time, Firefly said it planned to raise an additional $300 million through 2025 following Alpha’s launch.
At the time, Markusic said 2021 was “proving to be a breakout year” for the company.
“Space is expected to be the fastest-growing industry of the 21st century, and Firefly is determined to be perfectly positioned to lead the way in this new emerging space economy,” he said in May.