Commercial Rockets

ALPHA (α) — USA, 2021?

Firefly Space Systems had ambitious plans to build a small rocket called the Alpha with an aerospike engine, like NASA was trying in the VentureStar program that some say got killed by Dick Cheney. They went bust in 2016, thanks in part to a lawsuit by Virgin Orbit, claiming that Firefly’s original CEO Tom Markusic, who had worked at Virgin, took trade secrets with him. But now they’ve been revived as Firely Aerospace by a new owner, Noosphere Ventures. (That sounds like a perfect name for a bunch of egotistical coke-snorting vulture capitalists who think they’re building the future, but what do I know?) The new company is ditching the aerospike idea for traditional kerosene turbopump propulsion, which ironically makes them more likely than before to be using the same technology as Virgin Orbit. They’re also making the rocket bigger than it was in the original plan... which I suspect might not be all that good an idea, as they’re trying to compete on cheapness. This means that many of their small-sat customers will still have to settle for sharing rides, which will be cheaper on a big rocket. Firefly now has many more employees than before, including a branch in Ukraine, the homeland of Noosphere boss Dr. Max Polyakov, who has sunk some $150 million of his own cash into the venture.

Polyakov’s Ukrainian parents were both aerospace engineers. His goal, beyond making a profit, is to revive Ukrainian high-tech industry, which is a shambles now that the Crimean invasion has made cooperation with Russia impossible. To this end, Polyakov has founded a new engineering school there. But Polyakov doesn’t just do aerospace: his first successful venture was a company that ran disreputable dating websites which got accused of fraud, leaving him with a lot of distrust from the western financial world, which adds to the distrust they already have of entrusting sensitive awrospace work to Ukraine.

This rocket is somewhat like the electron, but not nearly as small. It has two carbon fiber stages, both burning kerosene, with four “Reaver 1” engines (yeah, we know what their favorite TV show is) on the booster and a single little “Lightning 1” on the upper stage. Both engines employ a tap-off power cycle, which is rarely used — the pump turbine is powered from a hole in the side of the main combustion chamber. The four first-stage engines each gimble on one axis only.

They planned to follow it up with a Beta (or β as they prefer to spell it), which would be basically an Alpha Heavy, with three boosters side by side. But then they told people that the Beta would have a larger core and use the Aerojet-Rocketdyne AR1 engine — the staged-combusion kerosene burner which was originally intended to replace the Russian RD-180 in the Atlas and Vulcan. But Firefly’s website still shows the version with three Alpha boosters. I wonder what kind of deal Firefly was given by Aerojet-Rocketdyne... who farted around for years, procrastinating on making the AR1 despite increasingly urgent Congressional mandates, only to find that by the time they finally started getting serious with it, Blue Origin had beaten them to the punch and stolen their main customer, ULA. (At one point, they even offered to buy ULA entirely! Apparently $2 billion was too low an offer. A few years later the shoe was on the other foot, and they got bought out by Lockheed.) The AR1 has enough power that the Beta might have a capacity of eight tons, whereas the triple Alpha would do at most four.

In January of 2020, they managed to get a completed booster onto a stand for a static fire test. Unfortunately it caused a fire which wasn’t quite static — flames in the engine compartment due to a fuel leak — which prompted a rapid evacuation of surrounding neighborhoods. The test immediately aborted itself and extinguishers automatically blew out the fire, with no real damage done.

(That’s a much better situation than rival company Rocket Crafters suffered around the same time, in which an “overpressure event” during an engine test punched holes in their roof and started grass fires outside. They were trying to make a hybrid engine called STAR3D, in which the S was supposed to stand for “safe”.

They hoped to get to orbit within six months after fixing whatever caused the leak. It took eight to get a successful run on the test stand, but that left them thinking they could go for orbit within weeks. It was not to be... even after the rocket arrived at Vandenberg, the expected launch window passed by with no word from the company for months after. It wasn’t until the following September (thanks in part to covid) that they finished the updates to the launch pad, completed a static fire on it, and launched. It looks like it lost an engine early, and managed to keep flying for about two more minutes before it went sideways and they had to blow it up. (In such cases they usually want to get it as far as they can from the launchpad, with as little remaining fuel as possible, before pushing the boom button.)

Firefly is also eyeing the lunar landing market, which NASA is trying to fund commercial development for. They’re working on a small lander which they call Genesis — no, now they’re calling it Blue Ghost — and an Orbital Transfer Vehicle with an ion engine. That will use the same Aerojet-Rocketdyne hall-effect thruster that is used on the secret X-37B spaceplane, and the Genesis will license some technology developed for Israel’s Beresheet lander, which crash-landed on the moon in its maiden flight. They are aiming for a capacity of 85 kilograms for a lunar surface instrument payload.

Finally, they’re talking about their Gamma (γ) rocket being a spaceplane. That is of course many years away.

Meanwhile, they’re also willing to sell engines, it seems, or license them. They signed a deal with Astra to let them build Reaver engines for use in their own rockets. The purpose of this is not clear, as Astra’s own Delphin engines, though smaller, seem to be about as ready and reliable as the Reaver is. This deal was made just after both companies, at nearly the same time, had test launches fail because one engine gave out.

α: mass 54 t, diam 1.8 m, thrust 740 kN, imp 2.9 km/s, type Tk, payload 1.0 t (1.9%), cost hopefully $15M/t, record 0/1/0.