Firefly Aerospace Rocket Explodes During Inaugural Test Launch

Firefly Aerospace Rocket Explodes During Inaugural Test Launch
Firefly's Alpha rocket during liftoff on September 2, 2021. (Screenshot: Firefly Aeronautics/Everyday Astronaut)

Firefly Aerospace’s first attempt to launch its two-stage Alpha rocket has ended in a spectacular fireball. No one ever said starting a rocket company was going to be easy.

The 28.96 m-tall rocket departed Vandenberg Space Force Base’s Launch Complex 2 at 9:59 p.m. EDT on September 2. It was the second launch attempt of the day, as the countdown was adjourned earlier for an unspecified reason. During the ascent stage — around two and a half minutes after liftoff — the Alpha rocket “experienced an anomaly” that “resulted in the loss of the vehicle,” as Firefly Aerospace tweeted later the same day. There are no reports of injuries.

Photos captured by SpaceNews and NASA Spaceflight show the aftermath of the failed test, with debris spewing out from the roiling fireball. It’s not the outcome that anyone wanted, but Firefly founders Max Polyakov and Tom Markusic knew what they were getting into when they founded the company back in 2014.

A view of the explosion.  (Image: Firefly Aeronautics/Everyday Astronaut) A view of the explosion. (Image: Firefly Aeronautics/Everyday Astronaut)

The Austin-based firm is seeking to provide small- and medium-sized rockets, with Alpha “designed to address the needs of the burgeoning small-satellite market,” according to the company. The single-use rocket is expected to lift 1,000 kg of cargo to low Earth orbit and 630 kg to the “highly desirable” Sun-synchronous orbit (an orbit that allows satellites to cross over the equator at the same time each day). Firefly is hoping to launch two Alpha rockets each month, with each mission costing $US15 ($20) million.

But they’re not there yet. The Alpha rocket, it would appear, did not perform as expected during its initial launch, as SpaceNews reports:

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.

Reporter Jeff Foust of SpaceNews says the rocket “appeared to tumble and then explode.” A statement from Vandenberg SFB made it clear that Space Launch Delta 30 “terminated” the mission, which it likely did upon detecting the subpar performance of the rocket. In a subsequent statement, Vandenberg SFB officials warned of “debris in the local area,” saying any fallen bits and pieces from the exploded rocket “should be considered unsafe.”

Alpha did carry a payload, despite the mission being a test. The cargo included a combination of technical and non-technical goods, including cubesats, a drag deorbit sail, a plasma thruster, DNA samples, photos, and some personal items. Alpha carried these items free of charge as part of the Dedicated Research and Educational Accelerator Mission (DREAM).

In a statement, Firefly said it’s still “too early to draw conclusions as to the root cause.” Its engineers, with help from its partners at the FAA and Vandenberg SFB, are currently reviewing “thousands of lines of ground and flight system telemetry in order to better understand what occurred.” Clearly not all mission objectives were met, but the company did achieve some, including “first stage ignition, liftoff of the pad, progression to supersonic speed” and “a substantial amount of flight data.”

Indeed, we shouldn’t get too down on Firefly for this launch — this is, after all, rocket science. Just ask Astro, an aerospace company whose rocket performed an unexpected sideways shimmy during its failed launch last week.