In a nutshell: Firefly Aerospace’s Alpha rocket lifted off on its inaugural flight on Thursday evening, arcing over the California coast towards the Pacific. But just after reaching supersonic speeds, it began flipping and spinning and was terminated remotely for safety.
The Alpha rocket is (or was) a two-stage, 29-meter tall small-satellite delivery system designed to deliver a 1,000 kg payload to low earth orbit, or 630 kg to sun-synchronous orbit. Firefly plan to fly an Alpha rocket twice a month at a per-launch price of $15 million.
Thursday’s flight, posthumously referred to as a test flight, began slightly north of Los Angeles at the Vandenberg Space Force Base at 6:59 pm local time. The rocket did have some working satellites aboard, but only for test purposes. It lifted off without a hitch.
Footage shows that about two minutes into the Alpha’s flight, the rocket slowly starts tipping downwards. It then flips, which would’ve put enormous pressure on its body. You can see some debris break off as flames begin to encapsulate the rocket’s boosters.
— Jack Beyer (@thejackbeyer) September 3, 2021
After another violent rotation, the rocket explodes spectacularly.
The Space Force’s Space Launch Delta 30 unit confirmed that the explosion was the intended result of the in-flight termination system, which they activated at 7:01 pm. The explosion eliminated the risk of the out-of-control Alpha crashing into a populated area.
Some debris can be spotted escaping the explosion, but it’s reported to have fallen into the ocean. There weren’t any injuries.
Firefly reflected on the flight positively in their press release: “Firefly’s First Test Flight Lasts More Than Two Minutes, With Successful Liftoff And Progression To Supersonic Speed.” I don’t think everyone would agree that liftoff and lasting two minutes qualifies as success, but I’m glad that Firefly got its needs met.
They say that their engineers are already combing through the telemetry gathered during the flight to work out what went wrong. They’re being joined by teams from the Vandenberg Space Force Base and the Federal Aviation Administration.
Until a cause can be determined, the Alpha model is sadly grounded — although I doubt Firefly has a working spare anyhow.