Firefly Aerospace: A Brief Technical History
23 miles outside Austin, Texas in Cedar Park, there is a an unassuming office park with a construction company, an air conditioning supplier, and the Northpoint church. If you parked your car in the lot for Sunday mass, you might see an unusual amount of cars parked outside Firefly Aerospace. Inside, men and women are working around the clock, building the next commercial launch vehicle to ferry small satellites into orbit, and eventually the moon.
Texas has a long history of headquartering American space efforts. Houston, Texas was home to NASA’s mission control during the Apollo Era and is currently used for International Space Station communications. SpaceX has a facility in McGregor, Texas for testing their rocket engines and firing flight-ready stages. Blue Origin also launches and tests their space efforts in West Texas and will soon launch tourists on suborbital hops from there. Firefly has big plans to move from Austin, Texas to the Space Coast later this year to begin work on launching their rockets. The announcement came first in 2014, and once again last February after an investment setback and corporate restructuring, when they officially leased Space Launch Complex 20 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Now, this company that once had a rocky start, is now ready to stand amongst the likes of Rocket Lab and Vector Space Systems.
Firefly Space Systems was founded in August 2014 by CEO
Thomas Markusic, a former propulsion engineer at NASA. Markusic has previously been employed by The U.S. Air Force, SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic. Among dozens of other rocket companies popping up around the same time, he saw a need for diversity in the field of launch providers. Since incorporation, the aerospace company has had its eyes set on the small satellite market. Their main objective being to make it cheaper, easier, and faster to get client’s hardware into orbit without having to rely on ridesharing or second stage deployment from larger launch providers. Custom launches for smaller payloads allows clients to better time their launches, as well as choose a preferred orbit. It’s like taking an Uber versus the bus, think “boutique launch provider.”
In October 2015, shortly after Firefly’s inception, NASA assisted the company through their Cubesat Launch Initiative by awarding them a fixed-price contract of $5.5 million to provide dedicated rides into orbit for small sats.
The Firefly Alpha launch vehicle was announced in mid 2017, and would be a 2 stage carbon-composite ship, running on either LOx/RP-1 or methane. Although some launch companies have proposed using methane in landers, this would be the first orbital launcher to adopt the unconventional fuel. Stage one would be powered by their FRE-2 engine with 12 identical combustors placed in an annular aerospike configuration, another first for the industry if large scale production was to occur. Using this aerospike configuration was not a new idea, designs have been tested since its inception in the 1960’s, and there was even a push to incorporate them onto the Space Shuttle. Aerospike engines are able to maintain their efficiency in higher altitudes where conventional bell shaped engines drop off. The first stage would put out 556 kN (125,000 lbf) of thrust. The second stage was to be powered by the FRE-1 engine, a conventional bell shaped single combustion engine, creating 31kN (7,000 lbf) of thrust. Firefly Space Systems conducted the first test of their aerospike engine in September 2016, but a few months later, Firefly was forced to make aggressive pay reductions after a key investor they had been working with for several years backed out. The investor is still unknown, but based on interviews with Markusic, we know that it was a European firm and that the Brexit decision was a key factor. Following this, the company laid off all 159 employees, and the future for Firefly Space Systems was unsure. They were in discussion to sign a contract that would have them develop stages for a different launch provider, but this never happened.
Firefly might have thought to rename themselves Phoenix Space Systems, because in August of 2017 they escaped near termination when Noosphere Ventures bought them and rebranded as Firefly Aerospace. During those uncertain times, Markusic sought out new investors and found a business partner in Ukraine, internet entrepreneur Max Polyakov. Polyakov has complemented Murkusics engineering abilities with his business savvy, and together, they have brought Firefly Aerospace roaring back onto the scene.
Soon after teaming up with Noosphere, Firefly redesigned several key aspects of their Alpha rocket and tested its new second stage engine. The New Firefly Alpha will stand at 29 meters (95 ft) high with a fairing diameter of 2 meters (6.6ft). They have kept the carbon-composite design but ditched the first stage FRE-2 aerospike engine, opting instead for four newly designed Reaver 1 engines totaling 736kN (165,459 lbf) of thrust. They also redesigned the second stage engine, moving away from the FRE-1 and opting for their new Lightning 1 Engine, another proprietary piece of hardware, and has a maximum thrust of 70 kN (15,737 lbf). These new engines will greatly increase Alpha’s payload capabilities; 1,000 kg will be able to be placed in Low Earth Orbit, and 630 kg in Sun Synchronous Orbit, with a 150% increase of payload capability than the original Alpha rocket.
In May of 2018, Firefly leased the old Delta II pad at the Vandenberg Air Force base in California, and are targeting a launch for late 2019 of their new Alpha rocket. With a new pad leased, the company has been able to land key clients such as Surrey Satellite Technology, who have signed on for six launches between 2020 and 2022. In October of 2018, York Space Systems awarded them a contract that would have them launch up to four satellites per year. D-Orbit, an Italian CubeSat launch, deployment, and micropropulsion service have promised up to an additional 15 launches over the next five years.
With all of these customers onboard, Firefly has felt the need to be explained. In February of 2019, the no longer beset aerospace company confidently leased Space launch Complex 20 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. This decision came on the heels of the announcement that NASA had awarded Firefly Aerospace as one of nine companies chosen for the Commercial Lunar Payload Program. This program would have Firefly delivering payloads to the lunar surface ahead of manned flights. The company is expected to submit bids in the near future, but if CEO Thomas Markusic and his team of engineers want to reach the moon, they're going to need a bigger rocket.
From its inception, Firefly has aimed to be a small satellite launch provider, but this aerospace company dreams big. They have plans to build a follow up rocket to their Alpha. The Beta rocket will be a 2.5 stage rocket consisting of three Alpha first stage rockets strapped together. If you’ve seen a Falcon Heavy or a Delta IV Heavy, you get the picture. Now picture it all black with chrome accents. At 101 feet tall, it will be nearly half the size of the Falcon Heavy. Made of carbon composite, the Beta will benefit from it’s light weight, allowing it to more efficiently burn fuel. It will be able to launch 4,000 kg, or four times Alpha’s capacity, to Low Earth Orbit. We’ve got our fingers crossed that Firefly Alpha’s launch later this year goes off without a hitch so that we can see one soon.
Firefly Aerospace continues to surprise. What would have been a death blow to any other fledgling rocket company,
proved to be their greatest test. They passed that test, but have continued testing, and testing, and testing some more. Their Lightning 1 engine has been continuously hot fire testing since September of 2018, and recently passed the huge milestone of firing for over 300 seconds. As they continue to surpass milestones, Firefly is pushing quickly toward launching their Alpha rocket for the first time and becoming a major launch provider for the years to come.