Firefly Planned to Air Launch Small Satellite Booster

firefly_space_systems_logoAn alert reader who goes by the pseudonym “redyns” has pointed out something very interesting about Firefly Space Systems, the company that on Thursday is reported to have laid off its entire staff due to financial difficulties.

In April, Firefly and NASA modified a contract under the Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS) program from land launch to air launch, according to the USASpending.gov website. The company’s Firefly α small satellite booster was originally designed to launch vertically from the ground.

The website shows that Firefly was awarded a VCLS contract worth $4.4 million on Sept. 30, 2015. A second contract modification has been made to “deobligate” $2.5 million in funding from the contract. That modification was made on Sept. 27, two days before the layoffs.

NASA gave VCLS contracts to three launch companies — Firefly, Rocket Lab and Virgin Galactic — to launch CubeSats for the agency. None of the companies has yet to fly their small-satellite booster.

Firefly’s change from land launch to air launch is a surprise. It would have placed the company in direct competition with Virgin Galactic, whose LauncherOne rocket will be air launched from a Boeing 747. The boosters have similar payload capacities.

Firefly and its founder, Tom Markusic, have been involved in a legal battle with Virgin Galactic for the past two years. Virgin Galactic brought arbitration proceedings against Markusic, claiming he took proprietary data when he left his position as Virgin’s vice president of propulsion to form Firefly in early 2013.

Markusic has denied the accusations. However, media reports say the arbitrator in the case ruled against Markusic earlier in September, saying he had taken materials improperly.

What Firefly would have air launched its booster on is unclear. One possibility is  from Stratolaunch Systems’ carrier aircraft, which is specifically designed to air launch rockets. The airplane is now under construction in Mojave, Calif.

Stratolaunch has not announced what launch vehicles it plans to use to orbit satellites. The enormous aircraft, which boasts a 385-foot wingspan, was originally built to launch medium-sized payloads into orbit.

The company had agreements first with SpaceX and then with Orbital Sciences Corporation (now Orbital ATK) to build medium-size boosters. However, both of those partnerships fell through.

Over the past year, company officials said they were looking at a range of options, including small satellite launchers. In June, Stratolaunch Executive Director Chuck Beames said the company planned to announce partnerships “very soon.”

Beames left his position at Stratolaunch and as president of Paul Allen’s Vulcan Aerospace earlier this month. Geekwire obtained an internal email from Allen on Sept. 22.

In the email, Allen said a change of leadership was necessary as the company moved “into a more operational phase” of the program. Stratolaunch Systems CEO Jean Fuller has become interim executive director of Vulcan Aerospace.

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  • JamesG

    What a mess…

  • Dave Salt

    Stratolaunch is *way* too big and expensive for something of the size that Firefly were looking at (i.e. < 1000 kg to LEO), which is roughly similar in performance to OSC's Pegasus and VG's LauncherOne.

    Why wait for an unproven aircraft, whose flight test program is going to be neither quick nor simple, when there are existing aircraft (e.g. 747, 767, 777, A330, A340) that can be adapted for their purpose in a far more timely and cost effective manner?

  • Well, this sucks (about Firefly furloughing its whole crew). Especially since they were into a pretty significant hiring drive when this happened.

    Hopethey can recover. But if I was a potential investor, I would be very wary of putting money into this while knowing that the whole IP for the tech my company has could be snatched up by VG. This lawsuit thing is the biggest venture capital repellent I can think of.

  • JamesG

    Because Stratolaunch doesn’t have anything else to do while waiting for its medium air-launch rocket to show up.

    The point of VCLS was to foster commercial launch more than to put tiny sats in orbit. That is why 3 companies were given contracts instead of it being a competition for one. I donno why they changed Firefly’s requirement from ground to air launch, but the fact that a billionaire backed Co, would now get a slice of this pie smells like a backroom deal. In fact this whole thing stinks pretty bad.

    And now with Firefly in a coma, Stratolaunch is back out in the cold with nothing to do…. Karma. But knowing NASA they will probably still get paid to do nothing but polish “Birdzilla”.

  • Sam Moore

    The air launch thing was Firefly changing their contract with NASA, not the other way around. NASA would have no reason to obligate airlaunch.

  • Dave Salt

    My point was to address Doug’s speculation that Firefly were intending to use Stratolaunch, which seemed to be without foundation.

    Your suggestion that this was somehow rigged to give Stratolaunch a mission also seems to me to be without foundation… unless you have some deeper insight of the VCLS deal?

  • JamesG

    Why would Firefly want their VCLS contract changed to air launch when much of their development and marketing has been centered around an aerospike booster? Why would they do so at the cost of $2.5 million in revenue and push them off the cliff into insolvency?

  • JamesG

    Welcome to the Internet. Didn’t you get your tin-foil hat at the door?

  • Sam Moore

    Most likely because they expected investment from Vulcan in connection to use of the Stratolaunch aircraft for air launch. Gary Hudson has said that is his understanding that Vulcan either invested in Firefly or were about to.

  • JamesG

    Horse changing in mid-stream huh?

  • Douglas Messier

    Huh. That’s interesting. Chuck Beames leaves Stratolaunch just before all this stuff at Firefly goes down.

    Space News is quoting Markusic that an investor pulled out at the last minute. However, he says the investor was European.

  • Douglas Messier

    I just said I thought it was a possibility. I think Stratolaunch would be overkill for a smallsat launcher, but public statements by Beames over the past year indicated that was one of the markets they were looking at.

    Engineering question: would it be possible to mount multiple smallsat boosters on Stratolaunch for launch on the same flight?

    I don’t know why a switch to air launch would really bother NASA too much, JamesG. VCLS was designed to (a) launch CubeSats it has backup up on its manifest and (b) help new launch companies develop and demonstrate their boosters. It would still accomplish those goals whether Firefly Alpha was launched from the ground or the air.

    Having given billionaire backed Virgin Galactic a VCLS contract for air launch, NASA couldn’t very well turn around and deny Firefly’s request to change to air launch because it involved a partnership with billionaire-backed Stratolaunch.

  • Dave Salt

    Of course it would be possible to mount multiple smallsat boosters on Stratolaunch, from a pure engineering standpoint. However, my question would be: why?

    Air-launch certainly has some advantages for an ELV but, if my judgement of the engineering trade-offs and sensitivities is correct, it only really pays off if you’re building an RLV… but that’s another story.

  • Doug Weathers

    There’s no reason Firefly couldn’t use an aerospike engine on a rocket that’s air-launched.

    The easiest way I can think of to air-launch an already-designed rocket is to drop it out of the back of a C-17, like AirLaunch was going to do with their QuickReach rocket. Let’s see…

    The C-17’s cargo hold is 88 feet long. The Firefly Alpha is 77 feet tall. The QuickReach was 66 feet long. Might work.

  • Douglas Messier

    To launch four rockets with 20 satellites aboard on a single flight instead of a single rocket with five satellites on board. That would probably result in more logistical and safety challenges than it would be worth.

  • JamesG

    “There’s no reason Firefly couldn’t use an aerospike engine on a rocket that’s air-launched.”

    Well, except if you don’t get a good light on all of the combustors, you don’t get to abort the launch, your vehicle is going to make a hole in the ground. That is always the biggest drawback of air-launch and the more complicated your rocket, the worse it gets.

  • JamesG

    I know it was just a conspiracy theory snark.

  • Sam Moore

    I should clarify that this is all rumour, though Hudson doesn’t seem one to spread rumours lightly.

  • Doug Weathers

    That’s a problem with any air-launched rocket, not just the Alpha.

    I was responding to your statement which I read as saying “They’ve spent all that money on an aerospike engine, they can’t launch from an airplane!”, which I believe is false. If you were saying something else, I apologize.

    When I talked about an “already-designed rocket”, I’m assuming it was designed to take off vertically. This is a very different proposition than being carried aloft hanging down horizontally from an airplane, like LauncherTwo or whatever Stratolaunch ends up flying. The mechanical loads are quite different.

    If it’s carried inside the vehicle it can be supported however it needs to be.

    Check out the QuickReach and AirLaunch LLC. Great-looking concept.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AirLaunch

  • Doug Weathers

    How did Gary Hudson get involved in this thread?

    It’s funny, because Gary Hudson was the founder and CEO of AirLaunch LLC.

  • JamesG

    Firefly never mentioned air launch and all Markusic’s talk was of conventional ground launch. But given the state of their development, they could have easily have gone either or both ways. But news of them having a deal with Vulcan is a surprise and… smacks of desperation.

    Even being yanked out of an airplane still puts lots of weird loads on it (engine and GN&C startup from freefall Weeeeee!). Not for the faint of heart or pocketbook…