An Alpha rocket engine that unexpectedly shut down doomed Firefly Aerospace’s debut flight from Vandenberg Space Force Base last week.
The Alpha rocket, standing 95 feet tall, lifted off at 6:59 p.m. Thursday from Vandenberg’s Space Launch Complex-2 amid high excitement for the Texas-based firm’s flight into the small launcher business.
“About 15 seconds into the flight, engine 2 (there are four Reaver engines on the first stage) shut down,” Firefly officials said on Twitter. “It was an uneventful shutdown — the engine didn’t fail — the propellant main valves on the engine simply closed and thrust terminated from engine 2.”
Still, with three engines firing, the rocket continued to climb and maintain control for about 145 seconds. The nominal first-stage burn duration is about 165 seconds.
However, because of one missing engine — and the lack of thrust from that engine — the rocket’s climb rate was slow and it struggled to maintain control, Firefly said.
Alpha was able to compensate at subsonic speeds, but as it moved through transonic and into supersonic flight, “where control is most challenging,” the three-engine thrust vector control was insufficient. That caused the vehicle to tumble out of control, with video showing the rocket completing a flip.
Western Range crews at Vandenberg issued the command to terminate the flight, causing the dramatic explosion.
That self-destruct command typically activates ordnance on the rocket, slicing open the casing to destroy the structure.
The flight ended about two minutes after liftoff.
“Firefly has commenced an anomaly investigation to gain understanding of why engine 2 shut down early and uncover any other relevant unexpected events during flight,” Firefly said.
“We will report the root cause of the anomaly at the end of the investigation. In collaboration with the FAA and our partners at Space Launch Delta 30, we’ll return to conduct Alpha Flight 2 as soon as possible.”
Debris from the destroyed rocket landed in Orcutt and Lake Marie Estates, but officials have not explained why pieces of the booster have been recovered in the local community.
Firefly released a photo showing representatives with a large piece of a rocket engine, saying it was recovered in the desert, but did not specify the location they retrieved it.
Alpha carried an assortment of payloads for what the firm called the Dedicated Research and Education Accelerator Mission, or DREAM, mission.
A global competition to host academic and educational payloads ended with the selection of the rideshare participants on the inaugural flight of the Firefly Alpha launch vehicle.
Alpha’s 26 DREAM payloads represented seven countries.
— Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.