Firefly Aerospace uses rocket engine to light birthday candles in epic cake video

Let's light that candle! The folks at Firefly Aerospace took a brief break from rocket development recently to fire up an engine in honor of co-founder Max Polyakov, who turned 43 years old Tuesday (June 30).

The Lightning upper stage engine, in true celebratory form, was used to light candles on a large birthday cake as high-speed cameras rolled, according to a new video. (The other planned use for the engine will be to help launch small satellites to orbit cheaply, using Firefly's Alpha rocket.)

"Anyone that's getting older understands that one of the most difficult problems is figuring out how to light all those darn birthday candles on the cake," said Firefly's other co-founder, Tom Markusic, in the video, which the company released on Twitter and YouTube. In the video, Markusic wore a multi-color birthday hat and a T-shirt that says "Texas Rocket Science," a nod to Firefly's headquarters in Cedar Park, just north of Austin. 

Firefly Aerospace used a Lightning rocket engine to light candles on a birthday cake to celebrate the 43rd birthday of co-founder and investor Max Polyakov in a June 30, 2020 video.  (Image credit: Firefly Aerospace)

The video showed Markusic unsuccessfully trying to light birthday candles on his own. "They melt. They burn you. It's actually a pretty difficult problem," he said. "To solve the problem, we've devised a rather unique solution to light all of the candles at once."

Just like any rocket science problem, solving it took teamwork. The video showed the careful preparations Firefly workers made to get the cake ready for its special lighting. They measured the sides with a ruler and used hand signals to get the engine ready. 

The video then shows a final countdown and the engine firing blowing fire on the candles and the cake itself in epic slow-motion video usually used to see how well a rocket engine is doing during testing.

Was the result tasty? The team doesn't say while sharing the charred cake, but their enthusiasm radiates nonetheless. "Happy Birthday, Max!" they cry.

Firefly Alpha is in development for a test launch later this year, with paying flights expected to start in 2021 or so. The two-stage rocket is designed to send up to 2,200 lbs. (1,000 kilograms) to low Earth orbit and 600 kilograms (1,300 pounds) to sun-synchronous orbit.

A view of Firefly Aerospace's birthday cake candle-lighting using a Lightning rocket engine for the company's Alpha rocket. (Image credit: Firefly Aerospace)

Firefly is also working on a more powerful launch vehicle called Beta, as well as a Genesis lunar lander to compete for NASA's Commercial Lunar Payload Services program opportunities to support Artemis crewed moon missions.

The Texas-based company was founded in 2017 after a predecessor entity, Firefly Space Systems, filed for bankruptcy protection after a major European investor pulled out of funding. Firefly officials have said the pullout was related to Brexit, which is the gradual withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union.

Editor's note: This story was updated to correct the engine use to light the birthday cake candles. It was Firefly Aerospace's Lightning upper stage engine for the Alpha rocket. 

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: