Firefly Aerospace Tapped to Compete for US Spy Sat Launches

The Firefly Aerospace Alpha rocket lifts off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Dec. 2023.
The Firefly Aerospace Alpha rocket lifts off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Dec. 2023. (Image: Firefly)

Small launcher Firefly joined a small club on Thursday, when the NRO approved the startup’s Alpha rocket to compete for launch spy satellites under the ten-year, $700M Streamlined Launch Indefinite Delivery/Indefinite Quantity Contract (SLIC).

It has plenty of competition. Among others, the NRO contract has on-boarded Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket, SpaceX’s Falcon variants, and Northrop Grumman’s rarely flown Minotaur and Pegasus rockets; United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket is likely to be certified as well. Virgin Orbit was a provider in the program, but SLIC’s first and only task order turned out to be Virgin’s last launch attempt, a January 2023 failure that teed up the company’s bankruptcy later in the year. 

Alpha’s adventures: The vehicle, designed to lift a metric ton of payload to LEO, flew successfully for the first time in September during a DOD mission to demonstrate satellite launch on short notice. Another launch in December delivered a Lockheed Martin demonstration payload to an incorrect orbit, but it still generated useful data. The vehicle is gearing up for a busy 2024, with a NASA cubesat mission and a demo mission for the NRO expected in the first half of the year.

Speed test: Responsive launch is a top priority for the NRO and the broader military and intelligence organizations who might need to quickly launch a spacecraft during a conflict. 

That’s where Firefly and Rocket Lab can compete with SpaceX—though the larger Falcon rockets are cheaper on a per kilogram basis, the company’s crowded manifest makes it unlikely to fly a mission on a few days’ notice. But Firefly’s 2023 demo saw it integrate and fly a spacecraft in 27 hours, while Rocket Lab says it can do the same in 24 hours.

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