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Firefly Aerospace's first Alpha rocket explodes during launch debut after major anomaly

Firefly Aerospace came up short in its first attempt to reach the final frontier.

Firefly's Alpha rocket launched on the company's first-ever orbital test flight today (Sept. 2), lifting off from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California at 9:59 p.m. EDT (6:59 p.m. local California time; 0159 GMT on Sept. 3). Launch came nearly an hour after an initial try was aborted late in the countdown.

Everything looked good for the first 2.5 minutes of the flight. But the two-stage, 95-foot-tall (29 meters) Alpha then suffered a fatal problem, exploding in a dramatic fireball high in the California sky.

Video: Watch Firefly Aerospace use a rocket engine to light birthday candles

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Firefly Aerospace's first Alpha rocket suffers a catastrophic anomaly during its first launch that led to the loss of the vehicle 2 minutes, 30 seconds after liftoff from Vandenberg Space Force Base, California on Sept. 2, 2021.

Firefly Aerospace's first Alpha rocket suffers a catastrophic anomaly during its first launch that led to the loss of the vehicle 2 minutes, 30 seconds after liftoff from Vandenberg Space Force Base, California on Sept. 2, 2021. (Image credit: Everyday Astronaut/Firefly Aerospace)
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Firefly Aerospace's Alpha rocket lifts off on its debut launch from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California on Sept. 2, 2021. The rocket failed 2 minutes, 30 seconds into the flight.

Firefly Aerospace's Alpha rocket lifts off on its debut launch from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California on Sept. 2, 2021. The rocket failed 2 minutes, 30 seconds into the flight. (Image credit: Everyday Astronaut/Firefly Aerospace)
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Firefly Aerospace's Alpha rocket lifts off on its debut launch from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California on Sept. 2, 2021. The rocket failed 2 minutes, 30 seconds into the flight.

Firefly Aerospace's Alpha rocket lifts off on its debut launch from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California on Sept. 2, 2021. The rocket failed 2 minutes, 30 seconds into the flight. (Image credit: Everyday Astronaut/Firefly Aerospace)

"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 representatives said via the company's Twitter account this evening. 

"Prior to entering the countdown, the Range cleared the pad and all surrounding areas to minimize risk to Firefly employees, base staff, and the general public. We are continuing to work with the Range, following all safety protocols," they added in another tweet.

Officials the U.S. Space Force said its  Space Launch Delta 30 Wing terminated the Alpha rocket over the Pacific Ocean after the anomaly. "There were no injuries associated with the anomaly. A team of investigators will convene to determine the cause of the failure," the Space Force wrote in a statement.

The failure should not come as a huge surprise; getting to space is hard, especially for a brand-new rocket. For example, three of Firefly's chief competitors in the small-satellite launch business — Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit and Astra — failed on their first orbital attempts as well, as Ars Technica's Eric Berger noted.

A DREAM deferred

Alpha carried about 203 pounds (92 kilograms) of payload on tonight's flight, which Firefly called DREAM (short for "Dedicated Research and Education Accelerator Mission"). The plan was to carry this gear to an orbit 186 miles (300 kilometers) above Earth, according to The Everyday Astronaut, which streamed the launch live. 

DREAM's payloads included a collection of memorabilia submitted by schools and other educational institutions, as well as a number of tiny satellites. The mission aimed "to capture humanity’s dreams of the future of space and to inspire people around the globe to dream big and reach for the stars," Firefly representatives said via Twitter on Tuesday (Aug. 31).

Some components of Firefly's forthcoming Space Utility Vehicle (SUV) also flew on Alpha tonight, according to SpaceNews. The SUV is a solar-electric space tug designed to deliver payloads to a variety of orbits, and the company apparently wanted to give some of its hardware an in-space test.

Not just Alpha

Alpha's march to the launch pad began in 2014, with the founding of Firefly Space Systems. That company declared bankruptcy in early 2017 after a big investor dropped out. But Firefly wasn't gone forever; it re-emerged that spring, with the new name Firefly Aerospace.   

Firefly now aims to snare a sizable chunk of the growing small-satellite launch market with Alpha. The expendable rocket is designed to deliver 2,200 pounds (1,000 kg) of payload to low Earth orbit on each $15 million mission, according to Firefly's specifications page.

Firefly's competitors in this space include Rocket Lab, which has been launching small payloads with its Electron booster since 2018; Virgin Orbit, which now has two successful missions under its belt; and Astra, which reached space on a test flight last year but has yet to get a payload to orbit. 

(Small satellites also often ride to orbit as secondary payloads on big rockets such SpaceX's Falcon 9. But such hitchhiking generally doesn't offer the precise orbital insertion that a dedicated rocket can provide, smallsat launch companies say.)

Firefly Aerospace's first Alpha rocket is raised into launch position at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California for a Sept. 2, 2021 launch attempt. (Image credit: Firefly Aerospace)

And Firefly isn't just about Alpha and the SUV. The company is also developing a larger rocket called Beta and a robotic moon lander called Blue Ghost, which is scheduled to deliver payloads to the lunar surface for NASA in 2023. 

Firefly also plans to build a reusable space plane called Gamma, which could launch satellites and provide superfast "point-to-point" transport here on Earth, among other tasks.

Editor's note: This story was updated on Sept. 4 with comments from the U.S. Space Force on the termination of Firefly Aerospace's Alpha rocket after its anomaly.

Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook. 

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Mike Wall

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with Space.com and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.