Space flight is hard.
A little launch company saw a big boom late Thursday night when its Alpha rocket exploded after detonation as the Space Force terminated the mission, according to an official statement from the company shared in a Twitter post.
But it's indescribably rare for feats of engineering this complex to go perfectly well on the first try.
Firefly's Alpha rocket achieved several key mission objectives
Alpha was a two-stage rocket that stretched ten stories high, and lifted off successfully from the Space Force's Vandenberg base in California, at 9:59 PM EDT on Thursday, carrying a payload of tiny satellites to space at no charge to their private owners. As Firefly's first-ever mission, it was a risky one from the start, so no one is overwhelmingly surprised. But just two and a half minutes post-liftoff, the rocket failed to reach its maximum aerodynamic pressure (called "Max Q" in the industry), and started to swagger to its side until turned horizontal.
This is when the rocket exploded.
With no hope of recovery, Space Launch Delta 30 stepped in to terminate the launch vehicle to keep it from potentially slamming into public areas, detonating the rocket mid-air in a magnificent explosion. Firefly said it was too early to know from whence the problem stemmed, but added that it "will be diligent in [its] investigation" in cooperation with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Space Force, according to the official statement. "We are happy to report that there were no injuries associated with the anomaly." The launch wasn't a total flop, since Firefly achieved several key mission objectives before the explosion, like nailing a first stage ignition, followed by a clean liftoff and seamless "progression to supersonic speed."
Commercial spaceflight is a feature of modern society
Taken together, these data points will strengthen Firefly's hand as it moves toward the next rocket development and testing procedures. The Alpha rocket design took roughly a decade to prepare, with the design emphasizing a launchflow for tiny satellite delivery into orbit. Naturally, there are other small launch systems throughout the industry working through their toddler years, like Relativity's Terran 1 and Astra's "Rocket 3". But Alpha is bigger, and powered by four of Firefly's Reaver engines, in addition to lifting payloads of 2,200 pounds into low-Earth orbit.
Firefly's standing goal is to sell a fully-committed launch of an Alpha for $15 million. If or when it reaches this goal, the company will then have a window of opportunity to lift even heavier payloads than Rocket Lab's Electron rocket can, the latter of which is already several steps into operation. Virgin Orbit's air-launched LauncherOne rocket could also be eclipsed, even though it just fired a commercial payload into space this June. In case you missed it, space travel has gone extremely commercial, and new companies are springing up every year with aspirations to stake a claim on any of several nascent space-facing services, from SpaceX's Starlink aiming to provide global internet coverage, to a company of NASA veterans working on an orbital space hotel with artificial gravity. So whenever you look up at the night sky and catch the faint glimmer of an orbiting satellite, remember to mumble to yourself: "There's money in it."