Firefly performed a full-duration firing of its rocket's second stage in April, 2019.

Enlarge / Firefly performed a full-duration firing of its rocket’s second stage in April, 2019. (credit: Edwards Media)

One of the questions facing any company as it brings a new rocket to market is what to put on top of the booster. After all, things can sometimes go all explodey with inaugural flights. So the first flight of any rocket typically serves as demonstration missions, to prove via an actual test flight that all of a company’s modeling and ground testing were correct. SpaceX famously put Elon Musk’s cherry red Tesla Roadster on the first flight of the Falcon Heavy rocket.

Despite a sometimes whimsical payload, however, first flights demonstrate a number of capabilities to potential customers. (In the case of the Falcon Heavy, the rocket’s upper stage performed a six-hour coast in space before re-firing its upper stage engine to demonstrate the ability to directly inject key satellites into geostationary space for the U.S. military).

As the Austin, Texas-based rocket company Firefly nears the first flight of its Alpha rocket, the company also faces such a payload decision. It has an (undisclosed) customer for the flight, but the smallsat launcher also has some unused capacity for the mission—the Alpha rocket has about twice as much lift as an existing competitor, Rocket Lab’s Electron vehicle.

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