Rockets of Today

ALPHA (α) — USA, 2022

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 then they got revived as Firely Aerospace by a new owner called Noosphere Ventures. The new company ditched 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 a bigger rocket than the one 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 hired many more employees than before, including a branch in Ukraine, the homeland of Noosphere boss Dr. Max Polyakov, who 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 was a shambles after 2014, when the invasion of Crimea made cooperation with Russia impossible. To this end, Polyakov 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 (are there any other kind?) 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 aerospace 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, which means it’s probably running about as hot as it’s physically possible for a turbine to run. The four first-stage engines each gimbal on one axis only.

Beta (initial plans)

They planned to follow it up with a Beta (or β as they prefer to spell it), which they originally said 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 for quite a while Firefly’s website still showed the version with three Alpha boosters. The AR1 has enough power that some said the Beta would have a capacity of eight tons, whereas the triple Alpha would do at most four. Then they ditched that and said it would use a new engine of their own called Miranda — seven of them, and a vacuum Miranda on the second stage. (They were previously going to just call it Reaver 2.) This will also be a tap-off engine, with around 1000 kilonewtons of thrust, where the Reaver has 200. The Miranda also has slightly better specific impulse.

I wonder what kind of deal Firefly was offered 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 that point you’d think A-R would make a pretty good offer, but apparently they didn’t. Maybe they still would just rather not deal with it.

(At one point, A-R had offered to buy ULA entirely! But $2 billion was way too low an amount. A few years later the shoe was on the other foot, and Lockheed would have bought them out if regulators hadn’t blocked it. Then the Aerojet-Rocketdyne board split into two factions and created a bunch of drama trying to decide the future of the company. In the end, CEO Eileen Drake defeated board chair Warren Lichtenstein, who had tried to push her out... even though when the two went to court, the ruling was that Drake was the one who had acted illegally. In the end, A-R was bought by L3Harris.)

getting it operational

In January of 2020, Firefly 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, or Vaya, 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 eventually tried a suborbital flight, and the rocket immediately went sideways. They didn’t tell anyone until weeks after.)

Firefly 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 you usually want to get it as far as you 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 a kick stage bus with an ion engine which they’re calling the Solar Utility Vehicle. That will use the same Aerojet-Rocketdyne hall-effect thruster that is used on the secret X-37B spaceplane, and the Blue Ghost 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, and have apparently got several NASA missions lined up for it if they get it working.

Finally, they’re talking about their eventual 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.

And while struggling to launch, US regulators forced Polyakov to give up the company, without any public statement as to why. Rumor has it that behind the scenes, they told Firefly that they would never allow it to use a launch pad until Polyakov was gone. In 2022 he sold his stake, with some bitter and angry remarks at being “betrayed”. This was just weeks before Putin began the full scale invasion of his homeland, so overall he was not having a good year. He’s still in rocketry, though, as he’s bought into Skyrora.

This left CEO Markusic as the main man, but a few months later the buyers ousted him, making him Chief Technical Advisor to save face. He’s also on the board because he has some ownership stake. They took months to appoint a new CEO named Bill Weber, who comes from the national security world rather than from aerospace. Meanwhile, the second Alpha was at Vandenberg preparing for its launch opportunity, and the preparation again took months, but in the end, after two scrubs, it did finally reach orbit on Oct 1, 2022 — thirteen months after the initial failure. And it still ended up less than fully successful, with the orbit too low — a fact that wasn’t admitted until after the initial media coverage was over. The various sats all fell back down over the next month — some of them within a week.

(That second test was an odd one, in that it was put into a slightly retrograde orbit for some reason. It launched over the Pacific from Vandenberg. It carried only a few brave little cubesats, but did demonstrate relighting the upper stage.)

Another year later, the Pentagon gave them a test, seeing if they could integrate and launch a sat from Vandenberg in just sixty hours. And remarkably, the rocket went up right on time. Their cadence may be very low but it looked like the launch process was now working well. That illusion was disspelled by the fourth launch, which like the second left the satellite too low, so it probably won’t stay up long.

the new Antares

Then came the announcement that Northrop Grumman would get a new booster from Firefly to lift their Antares replacement — in all but name, a Beta booster. And it appears that the newest plan for the Beta is, in fact, designed specifically for use in the Antares — the tanks would be made in the compatible size, and so on... nope, correction, they now say it will be fattened by 0.4 meters, so now Northrop has to start changing their launch pad transporter and the like, which they had intended to avoid. They hope to get it flying in three years, which is going to leave Northrop with a bit of a gap even in the most optimistic circumstances... and I for one am not optimistic, given Firefly’s slow pace at getting the Alpha to work. At some point after this announcement, Firefly’s website stopped using the Beta name for their forthcoming rocket, and instead proclaimed the MLV (medium launch vehicle) and showed an artist’s rendering with the Northrop Grumman logo visible on the side above Firefly’s stylized lightning bug. Both versions would use Northrop’s avionics.

The MLV would use a second stage similar to the first: carbon fiber, full diameter, one Miranda engine. The Antares would continue to use Northrop’s solid-fuel second stage, which is kind of dumb as it reduces the rocket’s capacity and flexibility, but would be perfectly adequate for flying the Cygnus. The MLV would also offer an optional third stage with the Lightning engine.

By 2024 the Miranda was starting to run on the test stand.

Some say that the end goal of the new owners is to get bought out by Northrop, which would relieve them from trying to figure out how the company should be run. If that happens I expect the MLV upper stage to eventually displace the solid one.

α: mass 54 t, diam 1.8 m, thrust 740 kN, imp 2.95 km/s, tap-off (kerosene), payload 1.0 t (1.9%), cost hopefully $15M/t, record 2/2/0 (arguably 0/2/2) through 2023.