The first orbital launch of Firefly Aerospace’s Alpha rocket ended in failure on Thursday night when the vehicle exploded just a few minutes into its flight.
In footage (below) of the launch that includes a commentary by YouTuber Tim Dodd of Everyday Astronaut, the rocket performed what appeared to be a perfect liftoff from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California at about 7 p.m. PT.
But two-and-a-half minutes later, the mission came to an abrupt end when Alpha suddenly exploded.
About 30 seconds before the failure, Dodd suggested something might be wrong when he noticed the rocket was taking longer than expected to reach supersonic speed, saying, “That’s may be not great … there’s a chance the vehicle could be slightly underperforming.”
Following the explosion, the seven-year-old Texas-based aerospace company quickly fired off a tweet confirming that its new rocket had suffered “an anomaly during first stage ascent that resulted in the loss of the vehicle,” adding that it’ll provide more information when it becomes available.
Alpha experienced an anomaly during first stage ascent that resulted in the loss of the vehicle. As we gather more information, additional details will be provided.
— Firefly Aerospace (@Firefly_Space) September 3, 2021
Firefly’s two-stage Alpha rocket stands at 95 feet (29 meters) and is designed to launch payloads of up to 2,200 pounds (about 1,000 kg) to low-Earth orbit.
The failed mission was carrying a payload called DREAM (Dedicated Research and Education Accelerator Mission) comprising a range of technical and non-technical items submitted by educational institutions and non-profits from around the world.
While Thursday’s failure is a significant setback for Firefly, such accidents are not unusual during early test flights. Indeed, Firefly CEO Tom Markusic acknowledged only last month that Alpha might not complete the mission.
“It’s not unusual to have an anomaly on the first flight,” he said, adding, “Alpha is a pretty straightforward rocket design, so whatever problem we might have, we think it is something that can be addressed relatively quickly.”
On its website, Firefly says that ultimately it wants to launch Alpha twice per month, deploying small satellites into low-Earth orbit for global customers in a business that will compete with the likes of SpaceX, Rocket Lab, and Virgin Orbit.
The company is currently building another rocket, called Beta, and earlier this year was awarded a $93 million contract by NASA to build a lunar lander called Blue Ghost that will deliver science and technology payloads to the moon in the coming years.