Less than 3 minutes after launching on its inaugural flight Thursday evening in California, Firefly's unmanned rocket started to flip end over end, doing cartwheels in the sky. It then exploded mid-air, CNBC reports. Space Force officials had told the company to destroy Alpha once the weirdness started so it couldn't fall to Earth and cause injuries, per CNN. No one was hurt in the explosion, though there were reports of debris hitting the ground. The Federal Aviation Administration and the Space Launch Delta 30 unit at Vandenberg Air Force Base are conducting investigations. For now, Firefly's 100-foot Alpha rocket is grounded.
The Texas company said it's working with investigators to figure out what went wrong so it can try again. Despite the disaster, Firefly said in a statement that the mission achieved "a number of" its objectives, citing booster ignition, liftoff and supersonic speed. Alpha gathered "a substantial amount of flight data," the company said. Had the launch succeeded, Firefly would have become the third US company to reach orbit with a rocket designed to deposit bunches of tiny satellites in space—after Rocket Lab and Virgin Orbit. Scores of competitors are working on similar plans, however, to build cheap, lightweight rockets for regular trips to orbit.
One of them, Astra, had a similar catastrophe last week in trying to launch a 43-foot rocket. That attempt ended in an explosion over the coast of Alaska. SpaceX has endured explosions this year, even. Firefly, which said its rocket "experienced an anomaly," wants to send up two single-use Alpha rockets each month, per Gizmodo. Each mission would cost $15 million. Although it was a test flight, Alpha carried technical and nontechnical items, including DNA samples, photos, and personal items. The company took them aboard at no charge as part of the Dedicated Research and Educational Accelerator Mission. (Read more rocket stories.)