Firefly is building fast and breaking things on path to a reusable rocket

A test version of Firefly's Miranda engine fires up on a test stand in Briggs, Texas.
Enlarge / A test version of Firefly’s Miranda engine fires up on a test stand in Briggs, Texas.

Firefly Aerospace

BRIGGS, Texas—The new medium-lift rocket under development by Firefly Aerospace and Northrop Grumman will eventually incorporate a recoverable booster that will return to its launch site in Virginia for reuse.

Firefly has previously suggested rocket reuse is on the roadmap for the new rocket—known, for now, only as the Medium Launch Vehicle (MLV)—but officials revealed new details of the plan during a recent visit by Ars to Firefly’s rocket factory in rural Central Texas.

“Northrop and Firefly have a similar perspective and that is, for that class of rocket, reusability is a requirement for a bunch of reasons,” said Bill Weber, Firefly’s CEO. “Economically, it becomes an advantage because we don’t have to go build additional floor space … Similarly, the pricing structure for customers starts to get super competitive, which we absolutely love, and we’ll be right in the middle of.”

Firefly is one of several companies racing to field new medium-class rockets, and all will be at least partially reusable. Rocket Lab, perhaps the most dominant company in Firefly’s class, is developing the Neutron rocket as it continues flying the smaller Electron launcher, which now has amassed 50 missions. Relativity Space, a well-funded private company based in California, is developing the partially reusable Terran R rocket after abandoning its smaller Terran 1 vehicle following just a single test flight. Stoke Space is working on a novel rocket design with a reusable booster and upper stage.

All of these launchers are sized to compete with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, the current market leader. They will eventually join the US military’s roster of launch providers for national security missions, which currently only includes SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, and, most recently, Blue Origin.

Necessary to compete

Until now, Firefly has provided few details of its rocket reuse roadmap. But details revealed to Ars show the MLV will employ a familiar method of recovery.

“For our base design, we’re designing around return to launch site propulsive landing,” said Merritt d’Elia, manager of propulsion for the MLV program. “We’ll iterate through all of these things, but we’re fundamentally architecting for reusability. Not just architecting, we’re planning to do it.”

Firefly may decide to include an option for downrange landings on barges at sea, as SpaceX does with Falcon 9 and Blue Origin plans to do with the New Glenn rocket. Rocket Lab and Relativity also plan to perform downrange rocket landings. However, d’Elia said that approach is expensive, requiring upkeep of ships, and delays the return of boosters to the launch site for refurbishment.

Testing of MLV’s booster recovery technology will begin with the rocket’s first flight, according to d’Elia, when Firefly will fly control thrusters to demonstrate the first stage’s flip maneuver to return to the launch site after separation from MLV’s upper stage.

Weber, Firefly’s chief executive, said the company’s goal is to recover a full MLV booster and reuse it by about the sixth flight of the rocket. “As it stands right now, it’ll be somewhere around Flight 6,” he said. “That is likely when it works well to introduce that capability into flight.”

On the ground, Firefly is designing Miranda engines to be able to perform multiple burns on a single flight, a capability it will need for propulsive landings. Engineers are testing MLV’s composite structures to ensure they can withstand multiple launches and landings, including the heat of reentry back into the atmosphere.

“To meet launch cadence, to go as fast as we need to go, to do it at costs that make sense, and to do it in a way that we’re not doing more damage to the planet along the way, I don’t know how you can achieve that without reusability,” Weber said.

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