By Joey Roulette
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Rocket builder Firefly Aerospace reached orbit for the first time this weekend, hitting a crucial milestone that kick-starts its launch business and opens new funding opportunities for growth, the company's chief executive said on Monday.
Firefly, based near Austin, Texas, launched its two-stage Alpha rocket in the pre-dawn hours of Saturday from a U.S. Space Force base in Southern California, sending its first payloads into orbit after an initial attempt over a year ago failed mid-flight.
"Saturday morning changed everything for this company," Firefly Chief Executive Bill Weber told Reuters. "This was a test flight, and we tried to keep our enthusiasm tempered."
Firefly's Alpha joins an increasingly competitive launch market. It became the fifth private U.S. rocket type to reach orbit since 2008, following the Falcon 9 from Elon Musk's privately held SpaceX, and rockets from public companies Rocket Lab USA Inc, Virgin Orbit Holdings Inc and Astra Space Inc.
Firefly's mission success follows years of difficulty, including a 2017 rescue from bankruptcy by Ukrainian-born entrepreneur Max Polyakov's Noosphere Ventures. U.S. national security concerns forced Noosphere to sell its majority stake to private equity giant AE Industrial Partners earlier this year, ending a monthslong crisis that had paralyzed Firefly's launch business.
AEI led a Series B funding round that brought in $75 million for Firefly in March.
The company, which sells Alpha for roughly $15 million a launch, has six missions planned in 2023 and 12 in 2024.
Weber said Saturday's mission could enable Firefly to raise more funds to finish construction of manufacturing facilities in Cape Canaveral, Florida, home to Alpha's second planned launchpad. It could also accelerate development of MLV, a bigger rocket the company plans to build with Northrop Grumman .
Weber suggested the company may explore another fundraising round, but rejected the idea of going public. He said Firefly is focused on private development of Alpha's production line, the MLV rocket and its new, more powerful engine.
If Firefly opts for another private raise, Weber said, it would aim to get the company cash flow-positive and be "the last raise that this company needs to do."
(Reporting by Joey Roulette; editing by Ben Klayman and Jonathan Oatis)