Firefly and Northrop Grumman to develop new medium-lift launch vehicle that could compete for national security missions
WASHINGTON — Firefly Aerospace’s Alpha launch vehicle has reached orbit for the first time on October 1, hours after the US space force announced it had awarded the company a $17.6 million contract for a mission 2023 to demonstrate the rapid response interval launch.
Jason Mello, president of Firefly Space Transport Services, said the Space Force contract is a “game changer” that opens up opportunities in the highly competitive national security launch market.
As a new entrant, Firefly faces an uphill battle, “but it was very important for us to get our first Space Force contract,” Mello said. SpaceNews.
The contract is for the Tactically Responsive Space TacRS-3 mission, where Firefly will be given just 24 hours notice to launch a small Millennium Space satellite into low Earth orbit.
“We won against a very tough set of competitors,” he said.
Mello joined Firefly less than a year ago after retiring from the US Air Force. He said responsive launch was discussed when he was in the service, but there was never enough funding or capabilities to do it. “Now there’s a real push to rapidly respond to threats and develop that operational capability,” he said.
The company is marketing the Alpha launch vehicle, which can launch 1,000 kilograms into low Earth orbit, as an alternative to other small launch vehicle competitors that can lift only a fraction of that, Mello said. He said a newer version of the Alpha would lift up to 1,400kg.
For responsive traffic, another selling point is to have more than one launch location. Firefly now only launches from Vandenberg Space Base, California, but plans to do so as well launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
The TacRS-3 demonstration is important for Firefly to build experience supporting military customers, Mello said. “It will certainly help us as a company to mature and be able to meet the operational demands.”
The next launch scheduled for Alpha is the NASA Venture Class Launch Service Demonstration 2 is scheduled for later this year. Meanwhile, between now and when the Space Force mission is called for next year, “we’ll be working very closely with Millennium on the interfaces to make sure we have a smooth integration of the mission,” he said. “We’ve already started having those conversations.”
By requiring launch and payload providers to work together in advance, the Space Force helps industry, especially launch providers “so we can launch satellites from different providers,” Mello said. “That’s going to be very important for us to be able to get to that 24 hours.”
National security space launch
A long-term goal for Firefly is to compete for national security space launch missions with a future mid-range vehicle it will develop in collaboration with Northrop Grumman.
“Our plan right now is to look at NSSL Phase 3,” Mello said.
The Space Force plans to select launch providers in 2024 for National Security Space Launch (NSSL) Phase 3 contracts. United Launch Alliance and SpaceX they won Phase 2 in 2020 and their current contracts will be re-competed.
Northrop Grumman in August announced that it had selected Firefly to provide an American-made first-stage upgrade for the Antares missile in order to end Northrop’s current dependence on Ukrainian and Russian suppliers for the Antares first stage. The upgraded Antares 330 — which will use seven Firefly Miranda engines — will support NASA’s space station commercial refueling services.
The new medium launch vehicle is projected to lift more than 13,000 kilograms into low Earth orbit. “We will work with Northrop Grumman on how to meet national security space requirements for Phase 3,” Mello said.
“I think it’s exciting right now for the commercial market to be able to provide capabilities to the government,” he said. “The Space Force is really looking for what possibilities are out there,” he added. “We are controversial when it comes to space, and the ability to launch is so vital to our national security.”