Firefly is building fast, advanced things on its way to a reusable rocket.

Zoom in / A test version of Firefly’s Miranda engine runs on a test stand in Briggs, Texas.

Firefly Aerospace

BRIGGS, Texas — A new medium-lift rocket being developed by Firefly Aerospace and Northrop Grumman will eventually include a recoverable booster that will return to its launch site in Virginia for reuse.

Firefly had previously suggested that reusing rockets was on the roadmap for the new rocket — until now known as the Medium Launch Vehicle (MLV) — but officials revealed new details of the plan during a recent visit by Ars to Firefly’s rocket factory in rural central Texas.

“Northrop and Firefly share a similar view, which is that reusability of this class of missile is a prerequisite for a number of reasons,” said Bill Weber, Firefly CEO. “Economically, it becomes an advantage because we don’t have to build additional ground space… Similarly, the pricing structure for customers starts to become very competitive, which we absolutely love, and we’ll be halfway there.”

Firefly is one of several companies racing to launch new intermediate-class rockets, all of which will be at least partially reusable. Rocket Lab, perhaps the most dominant company in the Firefly class, is developing the Neutron while continuing to launch the smaller Electron, which has now racked up 50 missions. Relativity Space, a well-funded private company based in California, is developing a partially reusable Terran R rocket after abandoning its smaller Terran 1 after just one test flight. Stoke Space is designing a new rocket with a reusable booster and upper stage.

All of these rockets are designed to compete with SpaceX’s Falcon 9, the current market leader, and will eventually join the U.S. military’s roster of launch providers for national security missions, which currently includes SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, and most recently Blue Origin.

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Essential for competition

So far, Firefly has provided few details about its rocket reuse roadmap. But the details revealed to Ars show that the MLV will use a familiar recovery method.

“For our basic design, we’re designing around a propulsive landing to get back to the launch site,” said Merritt Delia, MLV program director of propulsion. “We’ll repeat all of those things, but we’re basically designing for reusability. Not just designing, but planning to do it.”

Firefly may decide to include a boat-landing option at sea, as SpaceX does with its Falcon 9 rocket and Blue Origin plans to do with its New Glenn rocket. Rocket Lab and Relativity also plan to land rockets on shore. However, that approach is expensive, requires ship maintenance and delays the return of boosters to the launch site for refurbishment, Delia said.

The MLV’s booster recovery technology testing will begin with the rocket’s first flight, Delia said, when the Firefly will fire its control engines to demonstrate the first-stage flip maneuver to return to the launch site after separating from the MLV upper stage.

Firefly CEO Weber said the company’s goal is to have the MLV fully recovered and reused by the rocket’s sixth flight. “As it stands, that would be somewhere around flight six,” he said. “That’s likely when the company is well on its way to getting that capability into flight.”

On the ground, Firefly is designing Miranda’s engines to be capable of multiple burns in a single flight, a capability it will need for propulsive landings. Engineers are testing Miranda’s composite structures to ensure they can withstand multiple launches and landings, including the heat of re-entry.

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“To meet the launch cadence, to go at the speed we need to, to do it at reasonable costs, and to do it in a way that we don’t cause more damage to the planet along the way, I don’t know how you can do that without the ability to reuse,” Weber said.

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