On Wednesday evening, at Firefly Aerospace’s test site about an hour north of Austin in Central Texas, some sort of anomaly occurred. The Burnet County Sheriff’s Office reported that the incident took place at 6:24pm CT (00:24 UTC, Thursday), and that officers had called for evacuations of residences within one mile of the test site.
Earlier in the evening, in a subsequently deleted tweet, the company stated that it was loading liquid oxygen onto the rocket and about to attempt a qualification hot fire test of the first stage of its Alpha booster. This rocket is powered by four Reaver engines and has a reported capacity of 1 metric ton to low-Earth orbit. Firefly has been working toward the inaugural launch of the rocket, from Vandenberg Air Force Base, in April.
Later Wednesday night, the company issued a statement about the test, noting that no one had been hurt.
“During testing this evening we experienced a test anomaly resulting in a small fire on our test stand,” said the statement, which was attributed to the Firefly leadership team. “The fire was quickly extinguished by our fire suppression systems on the stand and the local community emergency response team quickly responded. Both the test stand and our rocket are intact. At no time was there any risk to individuals on site or the community.”
In an interview with a local television station, Firefly Chief Executive Tom Markusic said the incident “resulted from fuel coming out of one of the engines that created a small fire. When a rocket starts up, it sounds like an explosion. It’s very powerful, there’s fire that comes out of the rocket engine, so there’s noise. It was not an explosion.”
Markusic also accepted blame for the incident spurring confusion and fear among local residents. “It was just very normal rocket testing stuff,” Markusic said. “The response was larger than it needed to be. And I will take the blame for that. We didn’t properly communicate that there wasn’t an issue to the local emergency response folks.”
It is not clear what implications this will have for Firefly, which has had a remarkable resurrection after being left for dead in 2016 when its funding dried up. The company had 159 employees at the time and terminated nearly all of them. Now its ranks have swelled to 300 employees, thanks to funding from a Ukrainian investor, Max Polyakov.
If the rocket and test stand are indeed intact, the turnaround could be fairly quick. Certainly, other rocket companies have experienced far worse anomalies during the build up to their first flights. The Firefly test site lies only about 60 miles away from SpaceX’s much larger McGregor engine test site. Back in January 2005, as the company performed a pressurization test on its Falcon 1 rocket, the first stage fuel tank blew apart due to poor welds. But just two months later the company’s propulsion had a new tank on the stand and completed a static fire test of the entire rocket in May.