Firefly Aerospace currently plans for its maiden Alpha rocket launch to happen as early as Dec. 22, co-founder and CEO Tom Markusic told CNBC, as his company prepares for the next major milestone in its plan to offer a variety of space transportation services.
Markusic is confident in the launch date because of the "rigid" requirements of Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, where Firefly is finishing up work to prepare the launchpad at SLC-2. While "everything is susceptible to surprises," with room in the schedule to launch as late as Jan. 31, Markusic said the "full gamut of rules" at Vandenberg means the company has put extra work into certification for Alpha's first launch.
"We took the hard route to flight, and that was by going to a launch range that has very strict requirements," Markusic said. "So our design has been highly vetted, as we have a lot of requirements that are put on us by the range and that makes the rocket ultimately more reliable.
"I think it's very reasonable for us to expect complete success on the first launch," Markusic added.
Standing at 95 feet tall, Firefly's Alpha rocket is designed to launch as much as 1,000 kilograms of payload to low Earth orbit – at a price of $15 million per launch.
Texas-based Firefly has been around since its 2014, but the company suffered a setback in developing Alpha in 2016 when an investor backed out. The company furloughed its staff at the time, citing financial difficulties, until Ukrainian investor Max Polyakov helped restructure Firefly in 2017 through his firm Noosphere Ventures, effectively restarting the company's operations. To date, Polyakov has invested more than $160 million in Firefly through Noosphere Ventures.
"We have the great fortune that we have an investor who is fully on board to fund Firefly as long as we need him to," Markusic said. "He's in this for the long haul."
That funding has gone to establishing a network of manufacturing and test facilities in Texas, as well as development work toward Alpha's first launch. The company currently has grown to about 350 employees – with Markusic noting that, despite a handful of positive coronavirus cases several months ago, Firefly's workforce has been able to avoid disrupting its progress by implementing early safety measures and working in two daily shifts.
"We never had any internal transmission of COVID-19 inside the company," Markusic said.
Only a handful of tests remain until Alpha's first launch. Firefly conducted a final engine test with the rocket's first stage two weeks ago, with a second stage engine test up next. Then Firefly will conduct the "activation of the launch site," Markusic, said, essentially confirming that the ground systems are ready to go.
After a "wet dress rehearsal" – when the rocket is on the launchpad and fueled up – "the next big milestone will be the static fire of the entire vehicle at the launch site," Markusic said.
"Within a day of that we'll release and go [for launch]," he added.
But he also acknowledged the difficulties inaugural rocket launches have had – with many falling short of orbit on the first attempt. Even with his confidence, he noted that Firefly may not succeed.
"We've put in a five month buffer between the first and second launch, to allow us to tweak and fix any problems that we may find on the first flight," Markusic said.
While Alpha will carry a variety of payloads, Markusic noted that "this is not a money making mission" for Firefly. He expects the second and third launches will be similarly discounted to any customers with payloads on board, due to the added risk of launching with a yet unproven rocket.
Firefly expects to launch at least three times in 2021, and potentially four "if everything goes great on the first flight," Markusic said.
Markusic has been in the space industry for more than 20 years, having worked for the U.S. Air Force, NASA, SpaceX, Blue Origin and then Virgin Galactic. He highlighted his work as the director of SpaceX's testing facility in Texas, where he helped Elon Musk's company develop the Falcon 1 rocket. While SpaceX retired Falcon 1 to focus on the much larger Falcon 9 rocket, the company had planned to upgrade the former with the proposed Falcon 1e – a rocket that has a number of similarities in size and capability to Firefly's Alpha.
"When I was at SpaceX, Falcon 1 was flying and there was a huge amount of excitement. In fact, some satellite platforms were developed specifically due to the availability of that launch platform," Markusic said. "The world needed a Falcon 1 back then. And that was a decade ago, so it needs it even more so now."
The past decade has seen an exponential growth in the number of satellites launching to space each year, a pattern that Firefly expects to continue from both government and private entities. But Markusic thinks SpaceX and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, with rockets that carry tens of thousands of kilograms to orbit, "will be able to accommodate that exponential growth." The remaining section of the market is satellites that have an "exact destination and an exact timing" to reach orbit, Markusic said, where Firefly plans to focus.
Firefly's target market is shared by several other young rocket companies. While the capabilities and price of each rocket vary, the market for launches between 100 kilograms and 1,000 kilograms includes an established competitor in Rocket Lab – which has launched more than a dozen times – and several other rocket builders aiming for space in the next year, such as Astra, Richard Branson's Virgin Orbit and Relativity Space.
While he later added the caveat that his view is biased, Markusic declared that "no one's competently" capturing the small launch market. While some space industry executives think two or three small launch companies could coexist and compete for customers, Markusic believes there is only room for one company.
"Alpha is going to be the only rocket left in the small launcher class, as I think we're far ahead of everyone else except Rocket Lab," Markusic said. "It has the best payload performance of any small launcher out there and it's expandable, as we can easily turn a few dials to get it up to 1,300 kilograms ... I think we'll pull in all the small launch business and that's just going to have a really chilling effect on others."
After Alpha's first launch, Firefly will begin scaling its production, including building up its production and launch facilities in Florida.
In addition to Alpha, Firefly is planning to begin developing in 2021 an even more powerful rocket called Beta. That rocket is planned to lift between 7,500 kilograms and 10,000 kilograms – still less than half of lifting power of SpaceX's Falcon 9 but targeting the middle of the market with a price of $35 million per launch. Beta is designed "to have massive synergies with Alpha," Markusic said, as it shares manufacturing and several systems.
For now Firefly is focused on Alpha getting to orbit but Markusic said its vision "is to be an end-to-end space transportation company." The company aims to be cash flow positive in 2022 – with plans for multiple types of spacecraft.
"Firefly is not just about the launch vehicles, it's about in space operation," Markusic said. "Having the launch vehicles gives you the keys to space."
Polyakov, the company's financier, wants to build a portfolio of space growth opportunities, Markusic said. Beyond the Alpha and Beta rockets, Firefly is working on an orbital transfer vehicle – also known as a space tug, for delivering satellites from a rocket to a specific orbit – and a lunar lander called Genesis. The orbital transfer vehicle will fly on Alpha's first launch, and Firefly's bid the lunar lander to win a NASA contract under the agency's Commercial Lunar Payload Services program.
"We have a great and unique offering in our Genesis lander, as it's the only platform that has fight heritage – since we licensed it from Israel Aerospace Industries," Markusic said. "We're really bullish about that and I think we're going to get an award in November."
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