NASA’s Artemis plan to return humans to the moon’s surface has received the lion’s share of public attention in the past year, but the space agency’s innovative program to bring material to the moon’s surface has arguably led to more commercialization. activity.
The Commercial Lunar Services Program (or CLPS, which rhymes with chips) has put $2.8 billion on the table for delivery services. Over the next decade, a pool of more than a dozen companies will be eligible to bid for contracts to deliver scientific instruments to the moon’s surface. As an added benefit, NASA is helping to stimulate a cislunar economy.
Tom Markusic, founder of Firefly, said he sees the CLPS program as analogous to NASA’s 2006 plan to encourage development of private supply vehicles for the International Space Station. This program provided several hundred million dollars to SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, resulting in the development of the Falcon 9 and Antares launch vehicles, as well as the supply ships Cargo Dragon and Cygnus.
“I see CLPS as a contemporary opportunity,” Markusic said in an interview. “Before Firefly, I saw this as something we had to go for.”
Markusic worked at SpaceX in 2006 when the then small company won a cargo development contract, and he saw firsthand how the NASA funding helped transform the small rocket company into a dominant player at launch and beyond. The Dragon spacecraft became mission critical for SpaceX, and similarly, Markusic said Firefly should diversify beyond its Alpha rocket.
Launch, he said, is only worth about $10 billion of the total space industry valued at $350 billion. Having plans beyond launch helps Markusic’s pitch to investors as he explains how Firefly’s business can scale. “Building a launch vehicle gives you the keys to space,” said Markusic. “But if you want to exploit the full revenue potential of space, you also need to have a spacecraft.”
So Firefly designed its spacecraft, and this week the company confirmed that it has submitted a bid for the CLPS program’s fourth mission assignment, 19C, to deliver scientific instruments to one of the lunar poles. The bid deadline was early March and NASA is expected to award contracts sometime in April. That would leave about 2.5 years for companies to achieve a lunar mission to be launched in the second half of 2022.
OTV and Genesis
Firefly is developing both an Orbital Transfer Vehicle, or OTV, and a Genesis lander to deliver payloads to the moon’s surface. This may seem like a lot for a company to take on alongside rocket development, but Firefly has tried to leverage existing capabilities.
To power its OTV vehicle, Firefly has partnered with Aerojet Rocketdyne, a leader in space propulsion. The vehicle will use Aerojet’s XR-5 Hall Thrusters, which have already been tested in space on the Air Force’s unmanned X-37 spacecraft.
The Firefly OTV is expected to have a dry mass of 130 kg and have the ability to both place satellites in unique orbits and push several hundred pounds of payload to the moon over a two-month journey. The OTV will be able to provide 2 kW of solar energy on board loads.
For the Genesis lander, Firefly will license technology developed for SpaceIL’s Beresheet lander. Admittedly, this vehicle crashed into the moon in April 2019, but it nevertheless reached some mission milestones. “This gives us the highest level of technology readiness in its class for our lunar lander,” Markusic said.
Firefly will build the lander with American components to make it eligible for NASA and other government contracts. Firefly will also change the propulsion system to use Aerojet thrusters to create a more powerful, capable lander. Genesis will be able to carry 85 kg of cargo to the lunar surface.
Like almost every other company in the world, Firefly has been struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic for the past few weeks. Markusic said Firefly took step-by-step steps in March to suspend travel, maintain segregation between employees and limit visitors. Firefly has moved to two shifts, 7:00 AM to 3:30 PM and 4:00 PM to midnight, to cut the opportunities for socializing in half. Between shifts, the facilities are scrubbed with disinfectants.
Firefly has also moved high-end workstation computers into workers’ homes, allowing technicians to work remotely during the crisis, while also building information technology capabilities to support this work.
With the caveat that supply chain issues or further COVID-19 issues could disrupt progress, Markusic said Firefly is on track to launch the Alpha rocket for the first time this summer. He expects the hardware to be shipped to Vandenberg Air Force Base in June, where the vehicle will be assembled, rolled out for testing and eventually given a launch attempt.
In anticipation of a successful mission, Firefly is building two additional aircraft in parallel so that the company is ready for additional flights.
List image by Firefly