Pathfinder

An Interview with Ray Allensworth

Mo Islam
Ray, you are the second Firefly person we’ve had on the show. The first was CEO Bill Weber. So it’s really amazing that you’re here with us today. But it’s been a little bit since Bill was on the show. So maybe give us a little quick overview of what Firefly is and what you guys do.

Ray Allensworth
Yeah, no, definitely tough, tough shoes to follow. But yeah, so Firefly is an end to end space transportation company. So what that really means is that we launch land and orbit. So, you know, our ultimate goal is to be able to take customers anyplace, any, you know, anywhere, anytime.

Mo Islam
and what do you do for them?

Ray Allensworth
I’m the spacecraft program director, so largely I focus on the land and the orbit portion of kind of all of our portfolio of programs, largely focusing on all our civil and commercial space, so like all the commercial business basically.

Mo Islam
Got it. I want to focus. I know Firefly is, like you mentioned, a few different business lines. The launch vehicle business, the orbital transfer vehicle or space tug, as you might describe it. And then finally, the lunar lander business. But I do want to spend most today talking about the lunar lander business, particularly Blue Ghost. So maybe talk a little bit about what is Blue Ghost? What is the program? Give us a little bit of history, like how did it get started and why was it a business line that Firefly was interested in?

Ray Allensworth
Yeah, absolutely. So Blue Ghost is the name of our Lunar Lander programs. And so that started off, we won our first Lunar Lander contract in early 2021. And so really the CLPS initiative started a few years earlier. And so CLPS is the Commercial Lunar Payload Services. And kind of on a whim, it wasn’t originally in Firefly’s kind of aperture. We were like, you know what, we want to go after this and we want to be more than a launch provider. And so we ended up, we proposed a few different CLPS task orders and then we ended up winning the 19D task order. So 19D has been around as a program since early 2021. And then since then, we’ve won two additional NASA task orders, filling up. There’s three task orders total, but two lander missions comprised of those two.

Mo Islam
And do you know where the name Blue Ghost comes from?

Ray Allensworth
Blue Ghost is a type of firefly. I think it’s native to North Carolina. I’d say like 75% confident on that one.

Mo Islam
That’s funny. So how did you end up in Firefly? I know this wasn’t obviously your first space gig. You’ve done a few other you were at few other companies before that, you know, you know, why space and then how did you end up in Firefly?

Ray Allensworth
Yeah, so when I left college, I went to a few of the larger aerospace companies. So I spent a little bit of time at Raytheon. I spent some time at Northrop. Just really kind of getting my feet wet in these larger companies that had a lot of really good foundations to learn from. Obviously, so much history. So I spent a few years there. And then really, I just wanted to, a couple things. One, I wanted to come back to Texas, which was nice. But two, I really wanted to work at a smaller company. So that kind of led me to Firefly and it was right at the time that they had won Blue Ghost. So they had all these job postings coming online. So I applied to them and I joined the Firefly on Blue Ghost in April after our award in February of 2021. And I joined as the program deputy. So like the deputy program manager for 19D, pretty much that contract specifically. And then over the years, I’ve kind of finagled my way up. And so I started as the deputy and then I was the program manager for 19D. And then as we won more contracts, I’m now the program director for all of those clips, or really all the commercial contracts.

Mo Islam
What do you, how’s it like building a space company in Austin, Texas? Tell me a little bit about Austin. You wanted to come back to Austin. You went to UT if I’m not mistaken, right?

Ray Allensworth
Yeah, yeah, I went to the University of Texas, which is great. Most of my family’s been there, too. So I did want to come back to Texas. It was really exciting because when I graduated college, there really weren’t a ton of aerospace in Texas, but specifically in Austin. And so it was really cool to be able to see that, you know, in 2021, there’s so many more opportunities. So then developing this program, you know, especially in spacecraft, it started off with like five or six people. And now there’s like 75 people supporting spacecraft programs. So over the last three years we’ve seen like a huge growth and it’s cool to pull from kind of like adjacent industries in Austin to kind of pull them in and you know learn something new or you know apply it in kind of a different way and come work on spacecraft.

Mo Islam
So let’s take a step back. Let’s talk about the moon. So it’s in the news a lot for a lot of different reasons. But one thing that we get asked quite a bit about from actually non-space people, just people who are interested in what we’re doing and what we’re building at payload but don’t have a space background is this question of Artemis. And a lot of folks are familiar with Artemis, our plan to return to the moon. But most don’t understand why we’re going back. I think the question is, we’ve been there already, why are we planning to go back? It’s expensive. So from your perspective, as someone now helping run the BlueGross program, what is the importance of this?

Ray Allensworth
Yeah, so the moon is really interesting. So the importance of the moon. So you mentioned Artemis. NASA has the Artemis program and this kind of greater plan of like moon to Mars. And so the moon is particularly interesting because A, it’s close. So it’s a great place to go and to learn and in a lot of ways relearn. There haven’t been humans on the moon since I think like it was like 1972. And so it’s basically this very near planetary body that we can go and like treat it like a sandbox. We can go and basically relearn how to exist in space and create like a sustainable presence out, you know, basically outside of the earth with the ultimate goal of being like multi-planetary and living on Mars. And so, you know, going to the moon is just this really great opportunity to kind of, you know, easily, and I say easily with air quotes, you know, go and learn how to, you know, exist, you know, on different planets.

Mo Islam
Have you, is there any sort of internal dialogue within Firefly about sort of the national security interest in the moon, right? So if you kind of go back to the Apollo era, some folks would say that one of the main reasons why we got to the moon as quickly as we did is because we were politically coordinated around a common, call it adversary, right? Which at the time were the Soviets. And we wanted to make sure we got to the moon before they did. Now, some would argue that we are seeing this very similar dynamic with China today. And just this past weekend, China did land for a fourth time, fourth successful time. So there’s that sort of competition brewing in a pretty meaningful way all over again. So is that something that’s discussed or talked about within the company?

Ray Allensworth
Yeah, I mean, it’s definitely something we’re aware of. And we, you know, we talked to people about it, especially like different customers. You know, we have a commercial branch within the spacecraft department. We also have kind of more of our government and DOD programs, but it’s definitely something we’re aware of. You know, as you mentioned, you know, China just recently landed, you know, another time. In some ways they’re kind of ahead of us. You know, they’ve landed multiple times. They’re doing things like sample return. And so that is kind of in the back of the everyone’s mind and things that’s regularly discussed both inside the company, but also like when we’re going to talk to customers, including NASA.

Mo Islam
Is there a viable economic reason for companies to be building products and services for the moon?

Ray Allensworth
Yeah, I’d say so. There’s a lot of like, it’s like on the moon, there’s just a lot of like untapped resources. And so that creates a lot of opportunities for all sorts of applications. You know, you can go and collect material there and bring it back to Earth in a more affordable way. Or you can use the moon, you know, to accomplish other goals. You know, mission two, I know we’ll probably talk about it in more detail we’re using the far side of the moon for that mission because it’s silent. And so in that case, the moon has a different purpose, where maybe you’re not trying to get a resource from it, but you’re trying to use it to have a radio quiet zone to then go explore further into space. So there’s a really wide variety of applications, like the economic reasons to going back to the moon.

Mo Islam
So you’re kind of laying the stake on the ground and saying that lunar landers are a business and there is a market for lunar landers.

Ray Allensworth
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And I think what’s really exciting is that we’re starting to really see it come to fruition. And it’s cool to see it even from mission one to mission two. So like mission one, we got awarded three years ago. And then mission two, we got awarded a year ago. And just even the traction and getting additional payloads, in addition to the NASA payloads on those landers and orbiting vehicles, has significantly grown even over three years. So if you start looking at five or 10 years, there’s a lot of opportunity.

Mo Islam
And what are those customers look like in your mind? Like currently, like the customers today, and then how do you see that demand evolving over the next, call it 10 years?

Ray Allensworth
Yeah, so the customers right now, I do think they’re largely focused on like science, data, technology, you know, kind of individual science payloads that are each looking to learn something different. And so you see it on like a lot of the NASA Eclipse payloads, you know, a lot of them come from different NASA centers like Goddard or Kennedy. And then some of them are also partnerships with international space agencies. So we have the Italian Space Agency, we have the European Space Agency, but it’s a lot of like government backed programs to basically relearn or initially go to the moon.

But I do think over time, you know, you’re gonna see more and more commercial and it gets more into like resource utilization. You know, how can I go to the moon and bring back, you know, a particular material or helium or, you know, fill in blank here. And then I think once, you know, we’re really running, we’ve learned how to walk, we’re now being productive on the lunar surface, and then it’s probably gonna turn into 20, 30 years down the line, how can we have fun? What does tourism look like in a real way? Yeah.

Mo Islam
Sure. So what is, you know, we’ve mentioned it a bunch of times. I know you defined it, CLPS, the Commercial Lunar Payload Services Program. Why did NASA start that program? What was the main kind of point behind it?

Ray Allensworth
Yeah, so I think there is really a couple. First off, we are a precursor to Artemis. And Artemis is obviously human rated, but we’re relearning how to go to the moon and how to send science or cargo, for example. So we are related to that program in that way. But it’s also the first letter in clips is commercial. And so one of their goals is to really foster, basically pioneer the commercial lunar market which has been really exciting. It’s kind of a different construct than what NASA’s typically used to doing. But it also opens up a lot of opportunity in that the costs are a lot different. And so, you know, you can send a lander to the moon for $100 million instead of $100 billion. And I think that’s what’s really important, you know, to have like a sustainable space exploration program is that it remains affordable because that, you know, that was one of the problems in the Apollo era. And one of the reasons that it ended is that you didn’t really have the political backing or excitement anymore, and it was extremely expensive. So I think CLPS comes to answer some of those problems so that we can keep this program going for a while.

Mo Islam
what do you think is the most promising commercial opportunity on the moon? If you were to just pick one and say like, this is the one that’s gonna like make companies a lot of money.

Ray Allensworth
I do think that resource utilization, once we find a way to tap into the resources of the moon and make it productive for us back on Earth, I think that’s where a lot of the money is. I’d say very far down the line, maybe instead of going to Italy, you take the family to the moon. But I don’t know that that’s the most practical or near-term goal. But yeah, I think the resources, not just on the lunar surface, but underneath the surface you know, there’s the opportunity. Yeah.

Mo Islam
It’s very interesting you mentioned tourism because I just feel like there’s been so much, this episode has been fortuitously timed because there’s been so many interesting pieces of news that just came out, especially like Yusaka Maezawa just canceling his, you know, the Starship flight. I actually personally think, to kind of state the obvious, I think most people think this, that it had nothing to do with the schedule. I think it just cost. I think Maezawa’s having his own financial difficulties is what it sounds like. But you know, it was, I actually ended up, I spent a bit of time this weekend reading all these reactions from the crew, the potential crew members of Dear Moon. And it was very sad. There’s like a lot of people who were like, you know, I really thought this was gonna happen. I’m shocked and sad. I’m saddened by the whole thing. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to go back. And did you have any kind of, did you have any initial reactions when you saw that news?

Ray Allensworth
Yeah, no, I kind of did the same where I started looking into, OK, who was planning to go? I think the first one I read was like, everyday astronauts response. And it is sad because I feel like in a lot of ways, the moon is so aspirational and beautiful. And it’s kind of like, it’s exciting to just have this idea of like, maybe I’ll get to go there someday. And so it was kind of heartbreaking for those people to not be able to go. But I can’t say it was the most unexpected thing to happen. Because like you said, it’s like, you know, once it hits a certain price, you know, you have to do an ROI and sometimes people’s feelings are not necessarily taken into account for that. Yeah.

Mo Islam
Yeah, sure, sure, sure. Well, okay. We’ve landed on the moon, I think, by, if my count is right, six times, Apollo 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17. I think those are the six human landings. We’ve had over 20 successful robotic landings, yet at the same time, we’ve had a lot of failures recently. There’s been a lot of companies and nations that have not been able to land. You had Astrobotic earlier this year. They had an issue. Intuitive landed, but on its side. So kind of partial success. Why is it so hard to state? I mean, maybe this is a very obvious question, but like we’ve done it a bunch of times. We’ve done it a ton of times, I’d say, right? You know, between human and robotic. Why is it still so hard?

Ray Allensworth
Yeah. Yeah. So I mean, I think what a lot of people kind of overlook is just how extreme the environments are once you leave Earth. And that’s if you survive the launch environment, which I think is now becoming basically a solved problem. You know, the dynamic environments and a fairing are generally well understood now. And so, OK, say you overcome the incredibly hard trip to get out of Earth. You know, now you’re in orbit and now you’re faced with these extreme temperatures, you know, it’s extremely hot, it’s extremely cold, there’s radiation, and that’s all while you’re in orbit.

And then say go even further and say now I want to land something on the moon. And it’s this place with basically no gravity and it’s covered in this regolith that’s extremely sharp, it’s extremely fine, it gets into everything, it breaks everything, it covers your optics. And these are all environments that are extremely hard to test while you’re on Earth. You know, there’s very few spacecraft, particularly commercial, that you can take your whole spacecraft and go test it exactly as it’s going to see the environments in that order launched through landing. And so, you know, there’s only so much data there, you know, there’s probably like, you know, just that as many data points as you mentioned forever achieving that. And so it’s a really hard challenge to solve.

Mo Islam
No, I say it somewhat facetiously. I mean, we’ve launched rockets so many times and it’s still as, yeah, sometimes they still blow exactly. Talk a little bit about how the blue ghost architecture differs from the existing lunar landers. And I know there’s a number, I’m not asking you to compare them to every single one, but just like, even comparing it to like an intuitive or an astrobotic or like China’s recent lander, like how does it differ? What are sort of like, I don’t know, kind of strengths, weaknesses. How would you kind of think about that?

Ray Allensworth
Yeah, so I think our architecture, I think it really highlights our strengths as a company. And so some of those things, I think just visually when you look at it, I think one of the first things you’ll notice about our lander is that it’s a little bit shorter and it’s a little bit wider. And so landing softly and upright is number one. And that’s really reflected in our structural architecture and that. And then you look further in our carbon composite technologies, basically our whole primary structure uses that. So we’re extremely light, but we’re really strong. And that includes our foot pads. You’ll look on our lander, and I think another difference you’ll see is that our foot pads are a lot larger, and they’re a lot more round, and we ship at an angle. And so that’s also very intentionally done to make sure that when we land, we’re less susceptible to say, like, horizontal velocity, or maybe catching a foot on a rock, or something like that. And so I think that’s the most obvious difference.

But I think one of our biggest advantages is that, you know, we’re not just a system integrator at Firefly is that we really control the design of every single subsystem, pretty much all the way from component through, you know, manufacturing, integration and test. And so we’re able to really develop these subsystems and these technologies that, you know, they should be really effective in these environments. And so, you know, being able to create. I don’t want to say like unique because they’re also like repeatable and that’s one of the goals is to make every dollar we spend really productive. And so we’re not just designing something one time, but it’s able to really meet the requirements of landing on the moon.

Mo Islam
What are, you know, you’ve talked a little about the pros, but like having like a shorter, wider frame, right, around a lander, how does that, what are the downsides of having that type of structure versus like, I don’t know, call it an intuitive, which looks a little bit taller and skinnier for, that’s my engineering talk. Yeah.

Ray Allensworth
Yeah, like what are the downsides? I’d say, I mean, one of the things we’ve seen is, you know, sometimes there’s less clearance on the ground. So, you know, some payloads, you know, depending volumetrically where you’re at, maybe it might be harder to accommodate you on the bottom deck. You know, we have seen that a couple of times. We talked about how to fix that in the future, or, you know, kind of what mechanism is maybe needed to accommodate those kind of payloads. So inevitably, that’s the first one, is kind of the space between the ground and your bottom deck. But otherwise, I don’t know that there’s pros and cons. It’s really just to accommodate different scenarios and payloads.

Mo Islam
Sure. So what technical milestones has the program achieved so far that you’re allowed to share?

Ray Allensworth
Yeah, so the EGOS Mission 1 is pretty mature. So it’s almost fully integrated at this point. We really just have our solar panels and our legs to put on and our MLIs, so that outer thermal blankets. And a lot of those we really don’t put on until the very end because it blocks the interior of the lander to get in there for final integration and test. And so we’re prepping right now for environmental tests. So that’ll be our next big milestone. And then we’ll ship out to environmental testing. We’re using JPL. They’re partnering with us to do that environmental testing. And then after that, it really just gets into pre-ship review, launch readiness review, and then launch. So we’re right at the end.

Mo Islam
How large is the Blue Ghost team.

Ray Allensworth
The Blue Ghost team right now, there’s about 75 people that support Blue Ghost, so we’re about 10% of the company-ish. And then give or take, we have a couple contractors as well.

Mo Islam
And when is Mission One scheduled to launch?

Ray Allensworth
Mission 1 is scheduled to launch in Q4

Mo Islam
Well, okay, we’re going to come back to that. That’s pretty exciting. So you talked a little bit about a few of them. What are some of the most important challenges for, let’s call it, just stick to mission one? For example, like surviving the night. I know that’s one thing that people talk a lot about, especially in the Lunar Lander world. Talk about what are the most, one or two most important challenges that you guys are solving for, and how is the lander solving for those challenges?

Ray Allensworth
Yeah, so some of the things we’re solving for. Yeah, I mean, you mentioned Survive the Night. That’s actually kind of an adder for us. So I’d say leading up to that, I think the first big milestone for the lander is that initial power up and that initial priming the propulsion system. That’ll be a really big one. And then, obviously, landing with an ability to avoid hazards, landing softly, and then operating. So then it becomes a comms you know, activity. And then, you know, this actually isn’t in our requirements for mission one, but we’re doing a couple extra things to kind of prep us for future development and for future missions. And that goes back to what you mentioned is the survive the night. And so one of the things that mission one is doing is that so we land, let me back up. We land at the very beginning of the lunar day.

So at sunrise on the moon, and we’ll operate for one lunar day, which is about 14 Earth days and then that’s effectively the end of our mission. And then we’re going to extend operations a couple hours into the lunar night. And so that’s kind of that first step into learning how to survive the night, which was really exciting. And then we are going to try to turn back on after the lunar night. We are not expected to turn back on. But again, we wanted to try to see what data we can collect there, if any.

Mo Islam
And is this all solar powered?

Ray Allensworth
Yeah, so we’ve got solar panels and then we also have batteries that we, the batteries are pretty cool. They’re an in-house developed battery. It’s a very similar battery that flies on Alpha and it’s the same battery that flies on all of our orbiting spacecraft as well. So that’s an in-house design. But yeah, between the batteries and the solar panels, that’s how we power the lander.

Mo Islam
So I know RPS or radio isotope power systems have been used to previous moon missions, especially during Apollo. Obviously, that’s using nuclear power. Is that something that is on your radar as you think about powering future lunar landers?

Ray Allensworth
So it’s something we’ve talked about. It’s not something we’re actively pursuing right now. I mean, that is one of the options when you’re looking at surviving the night. I mean, there’s a couple barriers there. But one of the barriers is just pathfinding the paperwork to using that in a commercial setting. And so it’ll be really interesting to see kind of which direction Survive the Night goes and where that technology goes if we stick with batteries and stuff like that, or if that becomes the primary path. But so we’ve talked about it, but we’re not really actively working on it right now.

Mo Islam
So you mentioned earlier that one of the big challenges of lunar is, or doing anything on the moon, is the fact that you can’t really test and operate on the moon. You have to go there and figure it out, or see how it all works in that environment for the first time. So how are you thinking, how does Firefly test for the lunar environment and try to get as close as possible to what it’s going to actually be like?

Ray Allensworth
Yeah, so we do focus a lot, both at the component level and the spacecraft level, to kind of test in the order of the environments that the hardware might see it. So, you know, all of our components and subsystems will basically go through a pretty rigorous, like, dev qualification and ATP campaign. And so, you know, it’ll go through vibe and shock and acoustic and then, you know, thermal vacuum, EMI, EMC. We’ve done radio what’s that word, radiation testing on certain electronic components. So that is all kind of at the component level. And then we’ll do basically the same thing at the spacecraft level. Again, go back through the dynamic, all that. And that’s where we’re partnering with JPL. And then there’s certain things that are just really hard to test on Earth. And that’s something like landing.

How do you test landing on the moon but on Earth? You basically need a massive vacuum chamber covered in regolith. It basically doesn’t exist. One of the components of that is just landing. One of the activities we did is a bunch of drop testing. We basically built a leg, a flight leg with a flight foot pad, all of that. We loaded it up on what is basically equivalent to a gym bar, like a weight rack bar, and dropped the foot on concrete, on rocks, on lunar regolith simulant, basically a hundred times at a bunch of different angles and a bunch of different weights. We’ve done analysis with that to say, hey, what if we land on two legs? What if we land on three legs? What if we land at an angle? For landing, that’s as good as we can get to test out the structure of the leg, but also we have sensors on the foot pad as well. That was kind of a fun one to do, the guys were out in the parking lot in hazmat suits testing the, because we had the regolith, which is extremely carcinogenic. So that was an interesting test campaign.

Mo Islam
How are you testing propulsion?

Ray Allensworth
Yeah, so Prop will test at the component level. So those will see propellant in a vacuum. So our main engine does that, all of our RCS thrusters. So those will go through a full qual or have gone through a qual and then ATP testing in a vacuum chamber with propellant. But that’ll happen at the component level. Otherwise, they really won’t see propellant until it’s in orbit again.

Mo Islam
So I’m going to ask a dumb question. So you load up Blue Ghost into Falcon 9, which is what you’re using, right? Falcon 9, later this year. And launches, at what point are you no longer doing anything? Meaning it’s on its own, meaning it’s autonomously navigating and landing. Walk me through, what does that look like?

Ray Allensworth
Yeah, so it’ll be after a little while. So we will, you know, we say goodbye. It launches powered off and then it’ll power on in orbit. We’re doing a couple Earth orbits first. And so that’s really our opportunity to talk to the lander, check it out. You know, if we need to upload something, you know, make corrections, recycle anything, you know, we have Earth orbit to do that. And then we’ll do critical maneuver into lunar orbit. So then we’ll be in lunar orbit for a minute. And then basically the autonomous portion is landing. And so basically that critical maneuver for the lander to land, that is autonomous. And that’s when you kind of take your hands off for a moment and you’re like, all right, godspeed. And then once it lands, then we also operate. So we’ll basically put our hands back on it and we’ll do operations on the lunar surface before ultimately we hit the lunar night and the lander will power down then it’ll really be over.

Mo Islam
And, well, I, well, I actually, I want to spend a little bit of time talking about how long each of those kinds of phases takes, but before we get into that. okay. So we’re talking about a lot of cool things, fun things, and also challenging things like what, keeps you up at night regarding the risks associated with this mission. Like the mission is coming up. We’re June, right? It’s not that far away. How it’s very near, like, how are you thinking about, you know, between now and the end of year when you guys are gonna be attempting this.

Ray Allensworth
Yeah, so it’s something that me and the chief engineer talk about all the time. We worry about propulsion. It’s always scary. The first time we prime the propulsion system in space, that will be a scary moment. But we’re doing everything right now we can to be comfortable, feel comfortable, feel prepared. Really, what keeps me up at night is what am I not thinking about? What am I going to look back on and be like, 2020 vision, that was so obvious. It was so right in front of us. And so that’s what kind of, I think annoys me the most is like, okay, Rachel, like what are you not thinking about? Which can be kind of annoying, but honestly, like I think the team, you know, over the last three years, we’ve spent so much time, you know, testing each component and getting familiar with the spacecraft, you know, the team and the clean room has been effectively testing that lander near 24 seven for months. And so, you know, it gives a lot of confidence that you understand how the lander is going to behave you know, and what it like, what it doesn’t like and how to deal with it. So that’s kind of comforting.

Mo Islam
So for mission one, so we know what Firefly’s objectives are, right? Get the payload safely on the moon and hopefully survive the night and show some data afterwards, right? So we have some, you know, we as the audience understand that pretty well. I’d say like, what are the key objectives of the customers? So like NASA and anyone else who’s on mission one, and we don’t need to go through every single one, but like, what are they looking to achieve?

Ray Allensworth
Yeah, so a lot of the payloads, well, each of the payloads kind of has their own science objective. And, you know, surviving the night is just a bonus. All of their core objectives will happen during that first lunar day. And so, you know, it varies. You know, the first off is the science objectives. A lot of them are studying the regolith. Some of them are looking back at Earth to get information. You know, one of them is like kind of like GPS for the moon. But then I think there’s kind of secondary objectives, like one of the payloads, it’s the first Italian hardware that will be on the lunar surface. And so that is a lot of pride for them. And so besides their science objectives, that’s also like, that’s a huge win for the Italian Space Agency. And so we’re kind of helping also help them achieve that goal. But I mean, really, you just operate as expected and get the data, send it back to the payloads and hopefully everyone’s happy.

Mo Islam
So you mentioned something that’s interesting which is like this idea of national pride and having like for example Italian hardware Or maybe a Gucci wallet or something up there for the first time but Yeah, but but kidding aside, I think it’s it’s an interesting comment you made because you know, I had On our on our last episode we had VAST and we had Jed, Mikhailov and Max out from from vast talking about space stations and the demand for space stations and who’s gonna use it. And I think there is one part of the demand cycle. I don’t think people spend nearly as much time or don’t give enough credit to, which is this idea of national pride, right? Which is like, you know, we had back in the 60s and 70s in the Apollo era, there was only two space programs. There’s only the US and the Soviets. And today there’s nearly 80 space programs and they don’t have nearly as much of a budget that the US does, that China does, or that Russia does. But now, with a fraction of the dollars that were used in the past, you could actually get hardware from your country to another planetary body, which is extremely exciting and extremely cool for a lot of nations. And that stuff matters. That type of exploratory mission and the ability to say, yeah, our country did that, is worth a lot. And by the way, that’s another big market to go after.

Ray Allensworth
Yeah, no, it’s huge. You know, we mentioned the Italian space agency, but mission two has European space agency. And, you know, we’re getting a lot of traction from, you know, certain countries, you know, across Europe and the Middle East and Australia, all wanting to do the same thing of like, Hey, can you take my payload? I mean, you know, I can’t maybe build an entire lander, but hey, you have a ride. Can we join? And it’s just, it’s really cool to talk to all of those customers and just get it started.

Mo Islam
Right. So Firefly has won two Clips missions so far, right? And I know this is probably worth about a couple hundred million dollars total between the two, right? So we talked about mission one. What is the significance of mission two? Let’s kind of look ahead of November, December and say like, all right, what comes next? What does the second mission look like?

Ray Allensworth
Yeah, I think mission two is really, really interesting because it’s a combination of a couple different things. So mission one is a lander. And then mission two is where we start combining some of our spacecraft. And so mission two is a transfer stage, which is our Electra Dark. So it’s an orbiting spacecraft. And then it’s a D-Path, so a payload attachment fixture, and then the lander on top. So we kind of affectionately call it the stack. But what I think it really embodies is really productive dollars spent on kind of these Lego kit of these building blocks of components. So we’re taking a lot of what we used on mission one, a lot of the same composites and avionics and batteries and fluid systems and radios. And we’re now applying it to mission two and saying, hey, from those Legos, from those building blocks, we’re going to build a transfer stage that’s going to get the stack into lunar orbit. And then we have a lander that’s almost copy and paste. So again, you’re not spending the NRE on redesigning a lander. We have this lander and we’re able to just kind of adjust where the payloads are sitting.

Mission one is 10 small payloads and mission two is three large payloads. So with very little NRE, we’re able to accommodate, like adapt that lander design. So the lander will go off, it’ll go to the far side. And I think that particular payload is really cool because I think I mentioned it earlier, the moon can be used for a lot of different purposes. And so on that particular one, the lander’s landing on the far side so that it’s effectively in a radio quiet zone. It’s not hearing any of the noise from Earth. And so it’s looking out to basically learn about the history of the universe, which is really, really cool. And so it’s landing very similarly to where the Chinese lander just landed, actually. So that payload in particular is really special. And then that transfer stage is, again, really important for the company because it didn’t just get us into lunar orbit. It is now a service. And it’s basically a demo of a comms network around the moon. So it’ll be a comms payload around the moon for up to five years. And so there’s a lot of different applications for that particular spacecraft.

Mo Islam
So, okay, I wanna that’s great. So, the Chinese mission that just landed on the moon, from my understanding, what they’re attempting to do with that mission is to return lunar regolith samples back to Earth. And it’s the first samples from the far side of the moon that we are going to be returning, right? So, they landed the first lander on the moon on the far side and they’re trying to return the first samples from the far side of the moon. Is mission two the first commercial or actually forget about commercial. Is it the first US lander mission to the far side of the moon?

Ray Allensworth
Yeah, I’m pretty sure. I’ll feel stupid if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty confident.

Mo Islam
That’s pretty exciting. Yeah, no, I think you’re right. I don’t know what the other commercial schedules are and where they’re planning the land, but if that’s the case, then that’s pretty exciting.

Ray Allensworth
Yeah, it’s gonna be huge. Yeah. So yeah, very, very excited. Yeah. Mission one, you know, our goal is like, let’s be the first U.S. commercial, you know, to land upright, full, you know, full success, be able to complete our full mission. And then mission two, let’s be the first U.S. commercial to the far side of the mission.

Mo Islam
What’s next after clips?

Ray Allensworth
Yeah, so I think that’s a fun question because there’s a lot of, you know, we talked about earlier, you know, the growth even from mission one to mission two over the last three years in the commercial market. So we started to talk about, okay, what does it look like to just have a fully commercial mission? You know, instead of kind of using clips payloads, like now we have this kind of commercial pipeline that we’re fostering. Can we create a fully commercial opportunity ourselves, have a Firefly lander and, you know, aggregate these payloads and take them to the moon. So we’ve started talking about what does a fully commercial mission look like. But then there’s also a lot of other customers. There’s other government customers that also have interest in the moon, whether it be sending comms payloads or smaller payloads. And then you kind of look further and scaling up. And what does it look like to send a lot of cart, several metric tons of cargo and science experiments to the moon. And so that’s kind of what comes next, I think.

Mo Islam
Do you think Blue Ghosts can stand independently as a profitable business line for Firefly? Sorry, though. I one came out of nowhere but As you’re talking about this big vision. I’m like, okay, like this all sounds great But how big of a driver of dollars to the bottom line? Do you think this is gonna be?

Ray Allensworth
Yeah, so I’m a big believer in it and in the line being profitable and a really big new generator for the company. And so like if we looked at mission one in a bubble, for example, and so mission one is going to effectively be breakeven, which is really exciting for a first mission. And so if you just look at that mission, you can pretty much off the top, say 40% goes to your launch vehicle. Okay. And then you have the 60% and it’s basically 60% labor and 40% material. And this is just your cash out. And so Mission one, it’s like, how do we make these dollars most productively spent so that hopefully in the future, we don’t have to spend as much. We have a repeatable design that we don’t have to go back through qualification. So that mission two is that we spend a little bit less money on those things. And then you balance that with what can we bring in? And so mission one, there’s not a significant commercial presence. But mission two, that’s actually not true. The lander, for example, is fully sold out. And there’s a couple of payloads that we haven’t announced yet. So not only are we driving costs down, but we’re also now bringing revenue in with additional customers. And so there’s definitely a very large path to being profitable as a standalone item.

Mo Islam
Right. And let’s say, I mean, even the launch costs, right? 40% goes to, you would assume, and I’m going to assume that, you know, Firefly being a launch business intends on launching its own landers to the moon eventually, right? Especially once you guys have your next generation launch vehicle up and running. But it’s probably safe to assume that even that 40% launch cost is going to come down, even if you weren’t using your own vehicles, right? Just based on where, you know, what folks are predicting.

Ray Allensworth
Yeah, that’s ultimately the goal is that, you know, it becomes more available, more repeatable, and then, you know, kind of costs go down with that. So yeah, the goal is that regardless it goes down.

Mo Islam
What sort of role do you see the company in the broader context of the Artemis program? The Artemis program, obviously we have every intention and we will land humans back on the moon. And it’s an exciting, I mean, most of us, you and I included, weren’t alive the last time we had people on the moon. And we’re about to see that in this decade. So how do you see the company in within the sort of broader context of all that? Specifically the Artemis program.

Ray Allensworth
Yeah. Yeah, I think we’re really well suited to support that program and its greater mission objectives. It’s not currently in our roadmap to say, like, support human rated programs, but there’s a lot of other things that you need to support those programs. And so, you know, basically the foundation that we’re building with the Blue Ghost Landers and the Electra spacecraft is that we’re able to send repeatable and reliable cargo, for example, or science, wherever you need it to go. If you need it to go equatorial or south pole or far side, or hey, maybe to support the Artemis missions, you need more antennas in lunar orbit. So we can use these electric vehicles and set up a comms network for you. And then we can also apply it, you know, ultimately, you know, it’s moon to Mars. The Electra spacecraft in particular is really cool because it does have enough delta V and we can reconfigure those Lego kits to not just go to the moon, but turn it and go further and go to Mars. And so I think we’ll continue to grow alongside Artemis to support that program pretty well.

Mo Islam
What about sample return? So eventually having Blue Ghost dock with an orbiting electron coming back to Earth, is that part of the plan?

Ray Allensworth
Yeah, absolutely. That’s definitely in the near term. That’s like less than three years. That’s much more immediate. Is sample return and survive the night are kind of one and two. And then those technologies can basically get applied to, you know, wherever your destination might be. You know, obviously Mars is a little different, but yeah.

Mo Islam
So you and I have talked about this outside of this podcast and I want to ask you so that you talk about it publicly. But okay, so we saw Intuitive, they launched to the moon earlier this year. There was an enormous amount of media around what was happening around the company, around the people involved in the company, around mission control, everything, right? I have no doubt that we’re gonna see that again later this year. Are you guys ready for? The coming press bomb, that’s probably gonna hit you soon.

Ray Allensworth
Yeah, no, I think emotionally we’re preparing. I’m a little nervous, but yeah, we’re spending a lot of time, not a lot of time, a couple of us, we’re really partnering with our marketing team. We’re partnering with NASA a lot to have a really thorough comms plan. And then also just basically mentally prepare ourselves for any scenario most likely. And what we most want is a highly successful mission in which we will have significant press and interest. But it is a little bit nerve wracking, but it’s pretty exciting.

Mo Islam
Okay, so I have a few race specific questions to kind of close this out. So my first is, I think a relatively easy one, which is like, what’s one experience that you’ve had in your career, particularly at Firefly, where you said to yourself like, hey, like, I’m in the right field. Like it just made you realize that you were definitely in the right role doing exactly what you wanted to be doing.

Ray Allensworth
Yeah, I like that question. I think one moment where I really realized that I’m in the right spot is, I guess it’s not necessarily one moment, it’s just like a series of moments over time where it’s like, no matter kind of what the challenge of the day might be, it’s like you care so much about the program you’re working on and the people that you’re standing next to that it just makes, you want to solve the problem and you want to work late and you want to like give it your 100% and that, you know, you don’t always experience that at work, you know, and certainly in like previous jobs I have where it’s like, okay, I went into work and now I’m going to go home and I won’t think about it again until 8am. And that’s actually like really fulfilling to be able to say like, like, wow, like I love this team and this program and like there’s, there’s nothing that’s going to prevent me from like staying here or coming in early or you know, doing whatever I have to do to support the program and the people on it. And so that’s really where you realize like, I’m definitely in the right spot. Like this is what brings me joy. This is what motivates me. This is what inspires me. And so, you know, no matter what happens, good or bad, and there’s a lot of bad that happens. It’s really hard. These programs are really complicated. It’s like you’re never going to have the perfect week, but you always want to come in the next day.

Mo Islam
So I have a surprise. So 10 minutes before we started recording, so NASA gave me a call and they said, hey, Ray and the Blue Ghost team have done such a great job with our first clips mission. We want to give them 10 pounds of payload to send whatever they want. So you can send whatever you want. You have 10 pounds. I don’t know what that is in kilograms. If you’re currently in the kilogram mindset, but 10 pounds of secret payload, you get to sneak into Blue Ghost. Like what are you sending to them?

Ray Allensworth
Oh my God, I get to send anything? my God. I might send one of my beanie babies from when I was a kid. So one thing that we are looking to add is basically a plaque of everyone’s names that supported the mission. And so that is something that I love because it’ll be there forever. And it’s kind of like a piece of all of our souls is on that lander and our names are on it. And so that payload, that addition, I’m really excited about to be able to send that so that we’re kind of forever represented on this thing that we’ve worked on for so long.

Mo Islam
That’s very cool. If you weren’t at Firefly, what would you be doing?

Ray Allensworth
Oh god, I have no idea. I can’t. I don’t know what to do. Yeah.

Mo Islam
That’s a good answer. That means that you’re so focused that you don’t have head space for anything else.

Ray Allensworth
Yeah, this is, yeah, to ask me like after like January. Yeah.

Mo Islam
Okay, my last question is, so you’re in Austin, you’re in Texas, where is your favorite place to eat in Austin? Do you have any reccs? I get that question all the time, so I wanna throw it back to you and maybe give me some ideas.

Ray Allensworth
question. Okay, I think this is probably a hot take, but I think some of the best barbecue is Interstellar barbecue, and that’s in Cedar Park. So that that’s a big one because I didn’t say Terry Blacks or And then I really like Canje, C-A-N-J-E. So next time you’re in town, give that one a shot. That’s a good one. It’s good.

Mo Islam
That’s the Caribbean place on the East side. Yeah, that’s really good. Awesome. Well, thanks Ray so much for being on the show. It was great to hear. And I hope we can get an interview with you after you land on the moon. I’m sure it’s gonna be impossible. You’re gonna have like 50 different media outlets, but just remember Payload, Payload had the first interview. So thanks so much for being on the show and looking forward to having you back.

Ray Allensworth
Thank you.
Thanks.

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