Yes, you read that right. No, that’s not a typo.
Earlier, I described to you the new direction we’re taking this little project, and this is part of it. It is often said that “space is hard,” but as is often the case, the truth of the matter depends on how one defines terms. Sailing the black is indeed prohibitively difficult, but where most would distribute that difficulty disproportionately in favor of governments and corporations, I would spread it out more evenly. Space is hard, not to the point of impossibility, but to the degree that doing something amazing requires concerted effort and perseverance.
There have been a lot of people and teams in recent years showing just that sort of dogged determination, folks who don’t get a great deal of attention in the media, despite the fact that they are absolutely doing the impossible (and that makes them mighty). These are stories that need to be told — and stories that we all need to hear right now.
One such unsung hero are the men and women of Firefly Aerospace in Austin, Texas, USA, whose curious history mirrors that of its sci-fi-western namesake — both for good and for ill.
The company was founded as Firefly Space Systems in early 2014 by three men: Tom Markusic, an experienced propulsion engineer who left his position as the VP of propulsion with Virgin Galactic to found Firefly; PJ King, a former engineer who changed course early on in his career to entrepreneurship and investing in startups himself; and Michael Blum, a seasoned business leader whose resume included a stint as the Director and CEO of XCOR aerospace (an outfit we may wind up doing a piece on later on).
Here, I have to be a killjoy and tell you that the company’s name is not inspired by the most cancelled show to ever air (though they went to the trouble of buying the domain firefly.com). Rather, Markusic says it came to him while sitting on his back porch one evening watching actual fireflies, when he was seized by the notion and vision of a future where spacecraft lifting off from Earth to Mars might be so many in number and frequency that they would appear as fireflies in the night.
What might also be unexpected to a lay audience is the actual aim of their venture. See, there’s no shortage of larger companies — Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, SpaceX, Blue Origin, etc. — chasing the big paychecks with big rockets to launch big things on big trips to high orbits above Earth or to other worlds. What most people don’t realize, though, is that there’s a small market of small spacecraft in dire need of launches that’s often overlooked.
See, in the decades that have passed, technology has not only advanced, what existed before has also been streamlined down into smaller packages. It’s called miniaturization, and it’s why you often hear how your smartphone in your pocket is more powerful than the computers in the Apollo spacecraft, or why your favorite video game console from your childhood can now be emulated on a device the size of a deck of playing cards — and for much less than that Nintendo or Sega console cost at that time. The same phenomenon also carries over into aerospace technology, where many of the functions performed by Earth-orbiting satellites the size of a bus a decade or two ago can now be done just as well for far less in a craft smaller than a shoebox.
The other effect of miniaturization of satellites, called smallsats or nanosats after the standard nanosat protocol (like how USB devices work in anything with a USB port, because everyone agrees to use the standard), is that it has lowered the bar for entry to the point where smaller businesses and universities can construct them and even finance their launch. Now, it’s a waste of cash and a perfectly good rocket to charter, say, an entire Falcon Heavy to throw a satellite the size of a tissue box into space to take selfies of your home country, so what normally happens is that these are launched as “secondary payloads,” hitchhiking along with the launch of another, larger craft by a customer who’s already put their deposit down.
There’s a catch, though. I myself was once part of a team building a nanosat as part of my alma mater’s entry into a competition hosted by the United States Air Force, and while designing and building presented its own challenges, the one true showstopper was waiting for launch opportunities. Because that bar for entry has dropped so low, there’s been a flood of entrants, and there just aren’t enough secondary slots on these rockets to handle them all. Back when I worked on KnightSat-II, if I recall correctly, the wait list for nanosat launches was on the order of five to six years.
And the market is only going to grow from here. The small satellite industry is expected to reach nearly $10 billion by 2027, even when you account for the negative economic impacts of COVID-19. What doesn’t get covered in mainstream press is that there’s a huge demand even now for these small craft, because they’re quick and cheap to develop and field, and there’s no huge loss incurred if, you know, the rocket explodes.
So, lately, the bleeding edge of the private space industry has shifted away from big “moon rockets” and more towards providing dedicated launch vehicles — smaller rockets to launch smaller craft into orbit, to free them from depending on larger launchers’ prices as a secondary payload.
Firefly’s intent was to do just that. They signed agreements with the state of Florida to have access to the space coast facilities here for both building and launching, purchased equipment for fabricating structures out of lightweight composites, and, in September of 2015, successfully conducted the first static test stand firing of their first rocket engine they’d developed in house. By all accounts, they were off to a great start, and even greater things were in store.
They just had to deal with a lawsuit.
I’m going to keep this deliberately light on details to avoid accidentally editorializing. The basic facts are that Virgin Galactic alleged that Firefly CEO Markusic had stolen Virgin intellectual property on his way out the door for the new company to use, and had covered his tracks by deleting/destroying data. The wording of this next sentence is important: An independent arbitrator made a terminating sanctions ruling that Virgin’s allegations were at least partially true. Not a lawyer, not sure what how an arbitrator making a ruling is different from actually being found guilty, and that’s not my job to know — and it’s certainly not my job to be judge and jury either way. There’s already far too much of that going on these days. If you wish to dig into it more and draw your own conclusions, research case number 01-12-0002-2467.
At that point, you can probably guess where the story went: investors pulled out, mumbling something about “Brexit concerns,” the entire staff was furloughed by the end of 2016, all work came to a halt, with bankruptcy and liquidation following shortly after. It’s there, though, following their “cancellation hiatus,” if you will, that the story takes a turn that it shouldn’t, not in any rational, sane world: they made a comeback.
Their remaining assets were bought up by Noosphere Ventures, who restructured the company as Firefly Aerospace and gave it enough funding to achieve two launches. Their flagship rocket, the Alpha, underwent a major redesign, swapping out its innovative aerospike engines (a technology I’ll definitely be doing a future article on) for more conservative, traditional rocket engines. From there, a flurry of headlines follow: New engines successfully test-fired, a new R&D center built in Ukraine boasting the nation’s largest 3D printer, leasing a launch pad at Kennedy Space Center, raising $75 million in a funding round a few weeks ago and gaining “unicorn” status, and, the pièce de résistance — being selected and funded by NASA to build a robotic moon lander. The delicious part: It’ll be carried there by a little company they’ve contracted called SpaceX.
Maybe their name is fitting, after all.