# The Orbital Index

Issue No. 133 | Sep 8, 2021

🚀 🌍 🛰

 ¶Firefly Alpha’s first test flight. Firefly Aerospace attempted the first launch of their Alpha small satellite launch vehicle from Vandenberg Air Force Base last week. Alpha can carry 1 ton to LEO and is in the same class as China’s Long March 11 (800kg to LEO), JAXA’s Epsilon (1.5 tons), and ESA’s Vega (1.5 tons), as well as the upcoming Terran 1 from Relativity (1.25 tons, launching in early 2022) and RS1 from ABL Space (1.35 tons, later this year). This mission carried just 100 kg of student CubeSats (on a free and very risky ride), a test of SETS’s 200W electric hall-effect thruster that will eventually propel Firefly’s orbital tug, and an 18 square meter drag sail from Purdue University to accelerate deorbit of the upper stage. Unfortunately, none of those things went to space that day. While the launch initially looked solid, climbing quickly off the pad, the vehicle did not break Mach 1 when expected due to the loss of an engine 15 seconds after launch (post mortem video), and then once supersonic, tumbled out of control and was dramatically terminated by the range, causing parts of the craft to fall to the ground including (initially) intact engines (photos, video). Failure was due to engine 2’s main propellent value closing spuriously. Maybe we should start saying “valves are hard” instead of “space is hard”—valves were one of the primary causes of early failed landing attempts for Falcon 9, the Crew Dragon explosion, and are currently holding up Starliner’s launch. Regardless, it was a great first attempt and we expect an orbital future for Firefly and Alpha.
 🎆  (Image Credit: Michael Baylor / NASA Spaceflight)
 ¶Why fixed-price contracts are so important. Reprised from an old issue, as the SLS again faces delays and the JWST finally heads toward launch: The Best Way to Make a Profit as an Aerospace Company is to Fail, a compelling piece about how massive corporations like Northrop Grumman have little incentive to hit their cost-plus contract budgets and are arguably incentivized not to. “Northrop Grumman […] won the James Webb Space Telescope contract in 1996 with a promise that the project would cost $500 million and be flight-ready in 2007. The telescope is now likely to launch in 2021 and is expected to cost nearly$10 billion. [...] [W]ith every delay and snafu, Northrop Grumman rakes in more money as missed deadlines extend the timeline and require more funding from the government. One delay in 2018 brought Northrop Grumman close to a billion dollars alone—twice the price the firm originally quoted to the government for the entire project.” The massive overruns by Boeing on SLS are a similar example. Compare this to the much more sensible “fixed-firm” contracts of Commercial Cargo & Crew, CLPS, and now HLS and CLD, where snafus like Starliner actually cost the sellers money, not just NASA—in Starliner’s case, Boeing has spent at least \$410 million to cover remediation and the as-yet-unlaunched second test flight. At a minimum, this approach incentivizes companies to come in relatively on time since program overhead for long-running projects severely cuts profit.