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Firefly Planned to Air Launch Small Satellite Booster

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
October 2, 2016
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firefly_space_systems_logoAn alert reader who goes by the pseudonym “redyns” has pointed out something very interesting about Firefly Space Systems, the company that on Thursday is reported to have laid off its entire staff due to financial difficulties.

In April, Firefly and NASA modified a contract under the Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS) program from land launch to air launch, according to the website. The company’s Firefly α small satellite booster was originally designed to launch vertically from the ground.

The website shows that Firefly was awarded a VCLS contract worth $4.4 million on Sept. 30, 2015. A second contract modification has been made to “deobligate” $2.5 million in funding from the contract. That modification was made on Sept. 27, two days before the layoffs.

NASA gave VCLS contracts to three launch companies — Firefly, Rocket Lab and Virgin Galactic — to launch CubeSats for the agency. None of the companies has yet to fly their small-satellite booster.

Firefly’s change from land launch to air launch is a surprise. It would have placed the company in direct competition with Virgin Galactic, whose LauncherOne rocket will be air launched from a Boeing 747. The boosters have similar payload capacities.

Firefly and its founder, Tom Markusic, have been involved in a legal battle with Virgin Galactic for the past two years. Virgin Galactic brought arbitration proceedings against Markusic, claiming he took proprietary data when he left his position as Virgin’s vice president of propulsion to form Firefly in early 2013.

Markusic has denied the accusations. However, media reports say the arbitrator in the case ruled against Markusic earlier in September, saying he had taken materials improperly.

What Firefly would have air launched its booster on is unclear. One possibility is  from Stratolaunch Systems’ carrier aircraft, which is specifically designed to air launch rockets. The airplane is now under construction in Mojave, Calif.

Stratolaunch has not announced what launch vehicles it plans to use to orbit satellites. The enormous aircraft, which boasts a 385-foot wingspan, was originally built to launch medium-sized payloads into orbit.

The company had agreements first with SpaceX and then with Orbital Sciences Corporation (now Orbital ATK) to build medium-size boosters. However, both of those partnerships fell through.

Over the past year, company officials said they were looking at a range of options, including small satellite launchers. In June, Stratolaunch Executive Director Chuck Beames said the company planned to announce partnerships “very soon.”

Beames left his position at Stratolaunch and as president of Paul Allen’s Vulcan Aerospace earlier this month. Geekwire obtained an internal email from Allen on Sept. 22.

In the email, Allen said a change of leadership was necessary as the company moved “into a more operational phase” of the program. Stratolaunch Systems CEO Jean Fuller has become interim executive director of Vulcan Aerospace.