Private Firefly rocket explodes off California coast after failed launch

A rocket launched by Firefly Aerospace, the latest entrant in the New Space sector, is seen exploding minutes after lifting off from the central California coast on Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021. The Alpha rocket was “terminated” over the Pacific Ocean shortly after its 6:59 p.m. liftoff from Vandenberg Space Force Base, according to a base statement. (Len Wood/For The Santa Maria Times via AP)Len Wood/AP

An unmanned rocket exploded in a fireball above California minutes after liftoff, marking a fiery end to a private company’s first launch for its “Alpha” rocket.

Firefly Aerospace, based in Austin, Texas, was testing a rocket designed to carry small satellites into Earth’s orbit. All looked well moments after takeoff from Vandenberg Space Force Base on the Central Coast at 6:59 p.m. Thursday. After about two minutes of climbing, however, the 10-story tall rocket began spinning erratically over the Pacific Ocean.

As a result of the unstable behavior, Space Launch Delta 30, a unit of the U.S. Space Force, “terminated” the rocket to mitigate any danger to the public. Video footage shows the rocket exploding into a spectacular fireball. Luckily, no one was injured. 

Firefly said in a statement that it was “too early to draw conclusions as to the root cause” of the “anomaly.” They said they are working with the Federal Aviation Administration and  Vandenberg Space Force Base to conduct an investigation.

“While we did not meet all of our mission objectives, we did achieve a number of them: successful first stage ignition, liftoff of the pad, progression to supersonic speed, and we obtained a substantial amount of flight data,” Firefly said in the statement. 

A rocket launched by Firefly Aerospace, the latest entrant in the New Space sector, is seen lifting off from the central California coast on Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021. Matt Hartman/AP

Standing 95 feet high, the two-stage Alpha is designed to carry up to 2,200 pounds of payload into low orbit. The company wants to be capable of launching Alphas twice a month. Launches would have a starting price of $15 million, according to Firefly.

Firefly will have to catch up with two Long Beach, California-based companies that are ahead in the small satellite launch sector. Rocket Lab has put 105 satellites into orbit with multiple launches from a site in New Zealand and is developing another launch complex in the U.S. Virgin Orbit has put 17 satellites into space with two successful flights of its air-launched LauncherOne rocket, which is released from beneath the wing of a modified Boeing 747.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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