Private space company Firefly finally reached orbit with its Alpha rocket, joining a short list of U.S. commercial rocket builders that have successfully launched a vehicle to orbit amidst a growing space industry.
Alpha lifted off on Saturday at 3:01 a.m. ET from Space Launch Complex 2 at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. About eight minutes after launch, the rocket’s upper stage reached orbit. The upper stage then deployed three payloads about an hour later following a circularization burn, according to Firefly. “With the success of this flight, Firefly has announced to the world there is a new orbital launch vehicle, available today, with a capacity that is pivotal to our commercial and government customers,” Bill Weber, Firefly CEO, said in a statement.
Firefly’s first attempt to fly its Alpha rocket ended in fiery flames. On September 2, 2021, one of Alpha’s four first-stage Reaver engines shut down unexpectedly about 15 seconds after liftoff, activating the flight termination system. The rocket exploded in a massive fireball above the Pacific Ocean.
This time around, things went relatively smoothly save for a slight delay in liftoff. Firefly initially attempted to launch Alpha on September 11, but engineers noted a drop in the supply of helium used to pressurize tanks in the rocket’s second stage. The following day, a second launch attempt was scrubbed due to unfavorable weather.
The 95-foot-tall (29-meter) expendable rocket is designed to provide low-cost rides for small satellites, carrying payloads up to 2,866 pounds (1,300 kilograms) for the price of $15 million per launch. By comparison, Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket can launch upwards of 660 pounds (330 kg) to orbit.
With Alpha reaching orbit, Firefly became the fifth commercial rocket manufacturer in the United States to do so. Other companies include SpaceX, Virgin Orbit, Astra, and Rocket Lab. There is definitely a growing need for these companies in the burgeoning space market, and many more private ventures like Firefly are now seeking to build their own rockets to reach orbit.
With its first successful launch, the company is now hoping to launch Alpha once per month. It’s a rather ambitious plan, and we’ll see if Firefly can deliver in the wake of its important breakthrough.