Firefly Chief Executive Thomas E. Markusic. Credit: Firefly video

UPDATE Oct 10: Firefly and York Space Systems announce MoU on future launch systems. Firefly’s Alpha rocket could accommodate up to four of York’s S-Class platform, 3-axis-stabiliized, up to 85 kg of payload, 100W average power.

PARIS — The next 18 months are “Prove It” time for launch-service startup Firefly Aerospace Inc. The company’s Alpha vehicle — 630 kilograms to a 500-kilometer sun-sun-synchronous orbit — is undergoing stage testing this year, with a first orbital flight scheduled for 2019, likely from Vandenberg Air Force Station (VAFB), where Firefly is seeking an operating license.

Firefly Chief Executive Thomas E. Markusic has been around the launch-startup track before, including a bankruptcy, a reorganization and a rebirth with the financial backing of Noosphere’s founding entrepreneur, Max Polyakov:

https://bit.ly/2DJbLmi

He is under no illusions as to how difficult the business is, and can only watch in wonder as dozens of new launch ventures crop up. Satellite builder Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL) in June announced an agreement to purchase up to six Firefly Alpha launches between 2020 and 2022.

Are you on track for a mid-2019 launch of your Alpha vehicle?

We’re still on track for 2019, and then for quarterly flights in 2020. After that the the rate will ramp up.

What is the planned production cadence at your Texas facility?

We can do eight per year from the Texas facility. We’ll require a new production facility and we’re surveying various options for that. We’re in active discussions with different entities on where that large-scale production facility will go. Our Texas operation was intended to be an R&D facility where we can produce a low-rate run of the first few vehicles. But ultimately we expect to produce the scale quantities at a different production facility.

Getting a higher-rate production facility set up is not on the critical path to the first launch?

Not at all. In 2021, we’ll start rolling out the production vehicles from the new production facility.

You’ve spoken about India’s PSLV rocket as being a competitive reference point whose prices you could match. Is $15,000 per kilogram to polar low Earth orbit still a reasonable target in your view?

Yes.

Should we stop using dollars per kilogram as a metric or is it still useful?

It’s a useful metric if you’re buying an entire launch vehicle. For ride share it becomes less relevant. You may pay a premium, or get a discount, if you’re ride share, depending on what the rest of the payload is. If someone has excess capacity and wants to stuff something in the corner, you may get a discount. You may pay a significant premium if it requires some custom engineering of payload interface structures to accommodate what you’re trying to do.

The Firefly-Alpha vehicle. Credit: Firefly Aerospace

For example, we’re looking at commercial lunar payload services. If you’re doing a ride share, you’re putting a substantially intrusive payload in the form of a lunar lander to ride share with a geosynchronous satellite. There’s going to be a lot of engineering associated with that to mitigate risk to the primary payload and your cost per kilogram is going to go up substantially. So those are the two ends of the spectrum — lunar landers and co-manifesting and a 6u cube or a 3u cube that uses an extra spot an they just bolt it on.

Noosphere is still good for financing you through first fight?

Correct.

Where are you on U.S. Air Force certification?

We’re really actively working on that with the Air Force now that the Delta II has flown its last flight. We’re actively working on getting onto Vandenberg AFB. Those formal processes are starting to ramp up.

Do you envision VAFB as your primary launch facility?

Absolutely. VAFB is going to be where we do most of our launches, certainly all of our polar launches. For East Coast launches, we’re looking at Wallops and the Cape. We’re working on that actively. When we get into the Beta-class vehicle, we’ll have more Eastern launch interest. With the commercial lunar payload, we could actually launch with Beta from the east coast.

Does your first Alpha flight have a U.S. government customer?

We have a U.S. government customer that’s interested, but we don’t have a contract yet. We’re working on it.

What is the status of testing of the first stage booster and upper stage?

In October you’ll see a fully integrated second stage on our test stand, with engine, avionics, flight tanks, everything. That’ll be our first fully integrated test. What we’ve been doing up to this point is engineering and proving out separately all the parts — the engines, the tanks — and bringing a new test facility on line.

Right now they’re putting all the pieces together, so we’ll have our first integrated test. That’s a big step for the company, going from the progression of being able to develop little pieces, parts, and getting those complex assemblies put into even more complex assembly of the launch vehicle. That’s where we are now. We hope to do the full qualification test of the second stage in December.

I’m confident in our engine architecture. We have the simplest pump-fed rocket engines that have ever been built. The cycle that we use on the engines is very simple in principle, but very difficult to actually get to work.

We only have one cumbustor on the whole engine, whereas any other pump-fed rocket has at least two. Our gas generator cycle has two. That is a breakthrough that Firefly has come up with that’s going to be a discriminator between us and what others are doing. We’re really proud of that engine.

York Space Systems’s S-class platform. Credit: York Space Systems

This gives you operational ease, or cost-per-unit reduction?

The engine is going to the simplest, most reliable LOX/RP engine ever built. It will also be extremely low cost due to low parts count and simplicity.

A couple of your future competitors say getting a government launch license is time-consuming. Is it that difficult?

We haven’t had any problems yet, but we’re not as far into the process as some of the folks trying to launch from Alaska.

We’re finding that government sees this nascent New Space industry as something that’s good for America and they’re really trying to help. They’re here often.

We’ve hired some great people that actually worked on the other side of the fence. Our perspective is that government involvement will be something that will vet our technology and our methods and mission assurance methodologies. It will give commercial customers more confidence: If the Air Force has put us through a rigorous qualification process, that should give commercial customers confidence that this product has been vetted.

We’re not seeing it as an encumbrance. We’re really trying to get involved with them, get involved early and get people who’ve actually worked on the other side. I’m hopeful.

There’s a lot of companies interested in designing small launch vehicles.

Right now we’re among the crowd of people who are just talking about doing it. I tell our people weekly that our key goal is to get out of that crowd of noisemakers and get into the small elite group that can actually do it.

Should launch aggregators steer customers toward the most credible startup launch providers to promote stable industry growth rather than chasing the lowest price?

The most costly thing in this business is time. You can’t be seduced by a low sticker price alone if you see delays down the road, because delays will eat into that very very quickly.

There’s little evidence so far of a revolution in small-launcher schedule reliability. It’s still a tough business.

We try to be transparent in everything we do — to customers, the public, whoever. We don’t hide things. Our launch schedule is internally believed, I can tell you that.

Having said that, any smart customer should take an objective look at what’s happened historically with companies, all of them, to see the schedule slips and factor that into their business model. That’s what we tell them.

We’re hitting our milestones so far, but it’s hard, and you can stumble. Historically everyone has stumbled. I don’t see us stumbling now but I can’t tell the future. People should factor in the potential for us to stumble. We’re working humans doing the same thing. It’s not going to be for lack of effort or lack of money at Firefly, as far as I can tell.

The fact that dozens of small launch vehicles are in some stage of development is good news for you because it validates your model, or bad news because creates market confusion?

Honestly, there are so many I just kind of ignore it. I know who I believe are the real competitors and I have sized and priced our vehicle for what I perceive is the real competition. We have customers lining up at the door, so if we get our job done, we’ll have no problem.

I also know that the way we’re executing our business, especially the strong vertical integration and in-house capability — doing everything — is the way you drive costs down.

Firefly Aerospace employees at Test Stand No. 1. Credit: Firefly

We’re doing everything right and I think we’ve really sized the vehicle right. I don’t worry about the rest. I don’t see anybody else that’s going to do a better job than us or fielding a more economical vehicle.

I’ve got amazing financial partners that are just really passionate about this stuff, not just worried about the last quarterly turn.

You acknowledge the market is nowhere near big enough for all these rockets?

If you just again take an objective view, 90% of them won’t succeed. Why do I think we’re the 10% that will succeed? It’s a really hard business. But people with money and customers, and the government that’s given us access to launch facilities, they all have confidence in us. We’re going to give it hell and execute as hard as we can and we’ll see what happens next year.

What is the relationship between Firefly and Skyrora, the British small-satellite launcher startup? You’re on their board.

I’m giving them guidance. [Skyrora Chief Executive] Volodymyr Levykin and Max [Polyakov, Noosphere’s chief executive] have a long relationship, so he asked me to be on their advisory board strictly from a business perspective, a non-technical perspective. 

We haven’t done any technical collaboration at all, it’s purely business. I was interested in launching from U.K. as well. We submitted a proposal for the same competition that Lockheed Martin won. I’ve walked the fields of where I’d like to launch [from Britain]. I’ll be able to help them a little bit.

Were these fields in Scotland?

Yes, Scotland.

Not the most favorable launch site with weather and islands and so forth.

It depends on the stability and control of your rocket. We’ve definitely looked at that up in the Highlands, I think where Lockheed eventually decided to operate. The weather is definitely an issue, but it’s also about business development. For us, it’s more about launch convenience for the customer than it is about physically launching the rocket. There are European customers that would like to keep all their European business in Europe for logistical reasons.

I asked a couple of launch aggregators and launch-service providers and they said customers don’t much care about being next door. It’s not a top priority.

Every time someone tells you something, look at what their interest is in what they’re saying. Some of those folks are actually considering launching from Portugal by establishing launch facilities in the Azores. They might do it.

Maybe, if they get government funding. Otherwise the business model looks challenging.

I’m not claiming that they have good business models, I’m focusing on my own. Having a good relationship, and accessing and helping customers in Europe is definitely something we want to do. If it involves a European site it’s something we’d be open to. Also, an integration facility has been of interest to us. We could do the integration and encapsulation, and then ship it to some launch site in the U.S. or Europe.

You have to admit you’d never have thought you’d be among 60-80 launch startups.

I’m sure in all those charts and pitches, Firefly has been part of the discussion of the pros and cons, the ups and downs. ‘Look, these guys had a good idea, and money, and then went bankrupt. Do we want to lose all our money?’

And we’ve played a part in the current designs you see here and there. If you look at the first version of our Alpha, immediately you saw people copy exactly the payload characteristics, performance and configuration. The same thing happened with Alpha’s current version.

As you look around as these new companies come out you’re going to see a lot of 1,000-kilogram-baseline capability, and I’ll take personal credit for that.