Texas-based spaceflight company Firefly Aerospace is moving into a new launch site in Cape Canaveral, Florida — the location of US’s premier spaceport. Thanks to a deal with Space Florida, a government agency that spurs development in the state, Firefly will be taking over a pad called SLC-20 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station as well as building a nearby manufacturing facility. That means the launch provider now has secured two launchpads for the rockets it has been developing: one in Florida and another at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
It’s a significant achievement for Firefly, a company that has essentially come back from the dead. Firefly Aerospace used to be Firefly Space Systems, which vied to build a rocket to launch small satellites. That company went bankrupt and laid off its entire staff when it lost a major European investor during Brexit in 2016. But in 2017, Noosphere Venture Partners, a venture firm active in space investments, swooped in and bought up the assets of the floundering company, rebranding it as Firefly Aerospace.
the newly revived business is pressing ahead with an ambitious timeline
Now, the newly revived business is pressing ahead with an ambitious timeline for the future. Its redesigned rocket, called Alpha, is set to launch for the first time from Vandenberg before the end of this year. Firefly also plans to create larger launch vehicles in the years ahead, and the company even has grand lunar ambitions. NASA selected Firefly as one of nine companies to participate in the CLPS program, an initiative to send commercial robotic landers to the Moon. Firefly hopes to be both a launch provider and a rider in that program. “They’ve actively encouraged us to provide our launch solution to other parties, and we will do so,” Mark Watt, director and acting CFO at Firefly, tells The Verge. “But we’re also developing our own lander.”
That’s a lot of big goals for a company that was on the brink of collapse three years ago. But Firefly already has a lot of infrastructure in place from before the bankruptcy. When Noosphere Ventures bought the company, the purchase included all of the original company’s facilities, such as rocket engine test stands and machine manufacturing shops in Texas. That has allowed Firefly Aerospace to forge ahead with its mission. And now, thanks to the new deal with Space Florida, it will be able to expand both its manufacturing capabilities and launch locations. “Obviously, the real estate of launch facilities is prime real estate,” Watt says. “Being able to secure one of the premiere launchpads is a great honor for Firefly.”
Like many other emerging launch providers, Firefly is hoping to capitalize on a recent trend in the aerospace industry: the shrinkage of satellites. For many decades after the advent of spaceflight, satellites were the size of buses, weighing several tons and costing up to billions of dollars to create. But throughout the 21st century, satellite manufacturers have found ways to shrink these spacecraft, building them the size of washing machines and even cereal boxes. Numerous space companies, like Rocket Lab and Virgin Orbit, have built their businesses around this small satellite market by developing smaller rockets to launch lighter loads into space.
Image: Firefly Aerospace
A Firefly engine test.
The original Firefly Space Systems also aimed to launch tiny satellites, but when Noosphere Ventures got involved, it made the decision to focus on a larger subset of these vehicles. “We were beginning to recognize that [microwave-sized satellites] was not where the market was,” Watt says. “The market was actually washing machine-sized satellites. So we did a big technology re-architecture of Firefly.”
The original Firefly Alpha vehicle was supposed to launch about 300 kilograms to orbit, but the new team decided to double the rocket’s capacity. Now, it can launch between 600 to 900 kilograms to low Earth orbit. The team also completely redesigned the engine from scratch, according to Watt. However, everything else associated with the rocket’s design — the structure, the guidance system, the avionics — all remained the same.
“we did a big technology re-architecture of Firefly.”
With Firefly’s current infrastructure, the company can produce up to eight Alpha rockets a year. Watt says they quickly realized that number was way too low. “We knew that we were going to have to start laying the groundwork and ultimately building what we call a scaled manufacturing facility,” he says. That led Firefly to make the deal with Space Florida, an agreement that was originally reported by Reuters in January. Space Florida plans to give Firefly up to $18.9 million, using funds from the Florida Department of Transportation Spaceport Improvement Program, which helps to stimulate investment in private sector initiative. In return, Firefly says it will invest $52 million in Florida to upgrade the Cape Canaveral launch site and build a new manufacturing facility.
This new manufacturing facility will allow Firefly to make up to 24 Alphas each year, says Watt. The new East Coast launch site opens up new possibilities for different kinds of missions. From the West Coast, Firefly can only fly into orbits that run over the poles, but on the East Coast, the company will be able to fly over the equator, allowing them to go to much higher orbits and even to paths that lead to the Moon.
Before all that can happen, though, Firefly needs to make it to space with Alpha. If that launch is successful, then larger vehicles from the company will fly in the following years. Firefly has plans to build a bigger rocket called Beta, and the company even has dreams of creating a reusable spaceplane as well as space tugs that could be used to move satellites around in orbit.
It’s a very optimistic future for a company with a bumpy past, but Firefly is making big steps toward making it happen.