Northrop Grumman taps Firefly Aerospace to upgrade its Antares rocket to American-built engines

Chalk one up for the American broomsticks.

Northrop Grumman has announced that it will partner with startup Firefly Aerospace to build an all-American version of its workhorse Antares rocket, which currently flies with Russian-built RD-181 engines. Due to the continuing war in Ukraine, Russia halted all sales of its rocket engines to the United States in March this year. (The former head of Russia’s Roscosmos space agency famously quipped at the time: “Let them fly on something else, their broomsticks, I don’t know what.”)

“Through our collaboration, we will first develop a fully domestic version of our Antares rocket, the Antares 330, for Cygnus space station commercial resupply services, followed by an entirely new medium class launch vehicle,” Scott Lehr, Northrop Grumman’s vice president and general manager of launch and missile defense systems, said in a press release. “Northrop Grumman and Firefly have been working on a combined strategy and technical development plan to meet current and future launch requirements.” Those requirements include Cygnus cargo resupply missions to the International Space Station for NASA.

The new Antares will be outfitted with seven of Firefly’s Miranda engines, as well as “composites technology for the first stage structures and tanks,” according to the press release. The two companies will also collaborate on an all-new medium launch vehicle.

It should be noted that Firefly has not yet reached orbit with its Alpha rocket (the first and only launch attempt ended with an anomaly that triggered the Flight Termination System last year). And the company is currently without a CEO after it demoted co-founder Tom Markusic to chief technical advisor and full-time board member in June. That in itself followed a major shakeup several months prior, when private equity firm AE Industrial Partners bought out the former majority shareholder, Ukrainian Max Polyakov, over national security concerns.

But Firefly is still an active participant in NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, designing the Blue Ghost Lunar Lander to carry 10 payloads to the moon. The lander is expected to launch in 2023, hitching a ride on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

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