Small launch company Firefly’s Alpha rocket exploded mid-flight Thursday night, minutes after a clean liftoff during its first attempt to reach space. The rocket was terminated, Space Force officials said, as it began tipping sideways off course just after reaching supersonic speeds. Firefly said it’s working with regulators to investigate the cause of the failure.
Alpha, a two-stage rocket standing ten stories tall, lifted off from the Vandenberg Space Force base in California at 9:59PM ET on Thursday, aiming to send a payload of tiny private satellites to space at no charge to the owners. The launch was risky — it was Firefly’s first ever mission, so a failure wasn’t a big surprise. Two and a half minutes after liftoff, the rocket fell short of reaching its maximum aerodynamic pressure and began swinging to the side, tipping horizontally.
At that point the rocket exploded, a dramatic result of Space Launch Delta 30 stepping in to terminate the launch vehicle to prevent it from becoming a hazard to the public. In a statement, Firefly said it was too early to know what caused the mishap, and that “we will be diligent in our investigation” with the Space Force and the Federal Aviation Administration. “We are happy to report that there were no injuries associated with the anomaly,” it said.
Firefly said it achieved a number of key mission objectives despite the explosion, including a successful first stage ignition, clean liftoff from the pad, and “progression to supersonic speed.” All those points, it said, generated test flight data that will help the company move forward with the rocket’s testing and development.
Under development for roughly a decade, Alpha is the company’s centerpiece rocket designed to launch tiny satellites to space, serving as one of a handful of small launchers across the industry that are in their infancy, like Astra’s “Rocket 3” and Relativity’s Terran 1. Alpha, a bit bigger than its rival rockets, is powered by four of the company’s Reaver engines and designed to send 2,200 pounds of payload to low-Earth orbit.
Firefly aims to sell a dedicated launch on Alpha for $15 million. Once operational, it’ll be able to loft heavier payloads to space than Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket, which is well into its operational life, or Virgin Orbit’s air-launched LauncherOne rocket, which just shot its first commercial payload to space in June. All these rockets are tailored to sate growing demand for launch services from the small satellite industry.