Firefly Aerospace Dealt with a Fire During Rocket Testing

Firefly’s rocket and stand following the fire show minimal damage, according to the company, photo by Firefly Aerospace

At Firefly Aerospace’s 200-acre testing and manufacturing facility in Briggs, Texas, a fire broke out when the company tested the first stage of its rocket last week.

The fire occurred at 6:23 p.m. on Wednesday when the rocket’s four engines were fired “a small fire broke out in the engine bay at the base of the rocket’s stage,” according to Firefly.

“The 5-second test was immediately aborted, and the test facility’s fire suppression system extinguished the fire,” according to Firefly. “The cause of the anomaly is under investigation.”

Firefly’s test engineers were conducting a planned test of the first stage of the company’s “Alpha” launch vehicle. The test was to be the first in a series of propulsion tests to verify the design and operation of the stage and involved a short, 5-second firing of the stage’s four engines.

“Firefly engineers are reviewing test data from the stage to identify potential causes for the test failure, and Firefly will share results of that investigation once it is complete,” according to the company. “Firefly is committed to workplace safety, and at no time during the test were Firefly operations personnel or the public in danger. Firefly is coordinating closely with local authorities and emergency response personnel as it investigates the anomaly and refines its contingency procedures.”

It was the first time Firefly tested this stage of the rocket, Tom Markusic, Firefly CEO and Founder, said during an interview with KXAN television station.

Firefly Aerospace is building rockets on a stretch of land about an hour northwest of Austin in Burnet County. The company set up its production and testing facility there about five years. It has successfully completed several tests of its rocket engines in the past.

This is the first time anything went wrong that caused the test to shut down and the fire suppression system to kick in, according to Firefly.

In his interview with KXAN, Markusic explained that it’s not uncommon for problems to occur when testing rocket engines. In this case, one of the engines experienced a fuel leak and the projection of the fuel caused a fireball which then signaled for the test shut down and the fire suppression system to kick in.

Minimal damage occurred to Firefly’s first stage of the rocket in the incident, according to the company.

Firefly’s Alpha rocket is expected to launch from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in June, said Eric Salwan, Firefly’s director of commercial business development.

Firefly Aerospace’s facility in Briggs is in a remote stretch of former ranchland in the town of Briggs with a population of fewer than 300 people. The footprint of the test site has quickly grown as Firefly has added additional buildings on its design site to build different stages of the rocket and to house more workers. In one building, a team creates the launchpad for the rocket launch, in another adjacent building, a team works on various stages of the rocket and rocket engines and a third building houses the rocket cone and other parts.

The testing pad for the rocket engines is a short drive from the design facility.

Firefly’s launch vehicles service the small-to-medium-sized satellite market. Its Alpha rocket will deliver payloads to low earth orbit and its larger Beta launch vehicle will deliver larger payloads to low earth orbit and payloads to Geostationary Transfer Orbit.

When fully assembled, Firefly’s two-stage Alpha rocket will be about 95 feet tall and will weigh 119,049 pounds. The first stage is powered by four engines affixed to its base. The second stage of the rocket is what delivers the payload to orbit. “It features a pump-fed, bell nozzle engine.”

Firefly Aerospace also landed a contract with NASA in November of 2018 to provide lunar payload services.