Rocket Report: SpaceX focused on spaceship return; Firefly may be for sale

A Falcon 9 rocket will launch the NROL-146 mission from California this week.
Enlarge / A Falcon 9 rocket will launch the NROL-146 mission from California this week.

SpaceX

Welcome to edition 6.45 of the Rocket Report! The most interesting news from this week’s launch for me is that Firefly may be available for purchase. That means two of the few U.S. companies with operational rockets, Firefly and United Launch Alliance, are actively offered. I’ll be fascinated to see what the valuations of each will ultimately be if/when the sale goes through.

As always, we welcome reader submissions, and if you don’t want to miss an issue, you can subscribe using the box below (the form will not appear on AMP-compatible versions of the site). Each report contains information on small, medium and heavy rockets, as well as a brief preview of the next three launches on the calendar.

Firefly may be for sale. Investors in Firefly Aerospace are considering a sale that could value the closely watched rocket and lunar lander maker at about $1.5 billion, Bloomberg reports. The rocket company’s principal owner, AE Industrial Partners, is working with an advisor on “strategic options” for Firefly. Neither AE nor Firefly have commented to Bloomberg on the possible sale. AE invested $75 million in Texas-based Firefly as part of a Series B funding round in 2022. The company made a subsequent investment in its Series C round in November 2023.

Launches and landers …Now over a decade old and with a history of financial troubles, Firefly has emerged as one of the apparent winners in the small launch race in the United States. The company’s Alpha rocket has now launched four times since its failed debut in September 2021, and will fly a Venture Class Launch Services 2 mission for NASA in the coming weeks. Firefly also plans to launch its Blue Ghost spacecraft to the moon later this year and is working on an orbital transfer vehicle.

Blue Origin makes successful return to flight. With retired Air Force captain and test pilot Ed Dwight as lead passenger, Blue Origin’s New Shepard spacecraft returned to flight Sunday morning. Dwight, an African American, was one of 26 pilots the Air Force recommended to NASA for its third astronaut class in 1963, but the service did not select him. It took another twenty years before America’s first black astronaut, Guion Bluford, flew into space in 1983. At the age of 90, Dwight finally entered the record books on Sunday, becoming the oldest person to reach space. “I thought I didn’t need it in my life,” Dwight said after Sunday’s fight. “But I lied!”

One parachute down … This marked the seventh time Blue Origin, billionaire Jeff Bezos’ space company, has flown humans into suborbital space, and the 25th flight overall of the company’s fleet of New Shepard rockets. It was the first time in nearly two years that Blue Origin launched humans and resumed suborbital service after a rocket failure on an unmanned research flight in September 2022. In December, Blue Origin launched another unmanned suborbital research mission to pave the way for the resumption of human missions sunday. There was one problem with the flight, as only two of the capsule’s three parachutes deployed. It is unclear how long it will take to address this problem.

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RFA tests the first stage of its rocket. German launch startup Rocket Factory Augsburg announced on Sunday that it had begun the hot-fire campaign for the first stage of its RFA One rocket. “We hot-fired a total of four Helix engines, firing one at a time at four-second intervals,” the company said on social media site during startup, steady state, and shutdown.” It’s a big step forward for the launch company.

Aimed at a test flight this year, but …The test took place at the SaxaVord spaceport in the United Kingdom. The RFA One vehicle is powered by nine Helix engines and will have a payload of 1.6 tons in low Earth orbit. The company is aiming for a debut launch later this year, but I’m quite skeptical about that. By comparison, SpaceX began testing the Falcon 9’s first stage in 2008, with a full test firing of all nine engines in November of that year. But the rocket didn’t make its debut flight until June 2010.

China expands commercial spaceport. China is planning new phases of expansion for its new commercial spaceport to support an expected increase in launch and commercial space activity, Space News reports. Construction of the second of two launch pads at the Hainan Commercial Launch Site could be completed by the end of May. The first, completed in December and dedicated to the Long March 8 rocket, could host its first launch before the end of June.

Fulfilling a mega need … This appears to be just the beginning, however, as the spaceport could have a total of 10 pads serving both liquid and solid rockets. The reason for the dramatic expansion appears to be to increase access to space and allow China to achieve the launch speed needed to build a pair of mega-constellations in low Earth orbit, each with a strength of more than 10,000 satellites. It is also a further sign of China’s commitment to creating a thriving commercial space sector. (submitted by Ken de Bin)

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