Cedar Park company, Firefly Aerospace, enters deal with Israeli company to develop lunar lander


A Cedar Park headquartered aerospace company, Firefly Aerospace, announced on Tuesday an agreement with an Israeli company that will allow it to develop a new lunar lander.

The agreement, a partnership between Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and Firefly Aerospace, gives the Cedar Park company the ability to create a lunar lander called the Genesis based on another lander created by IAI that crashed before its moon touchdown in April this year.

"We're very excited," said Eric Salwan, director of  commercial business development at Firefly Aerospace, which employs over 200 people in Texas.

"IAI has the first commercial lander that attempted to land on the moon, and it came very close, so we're working with them with a very well developed lander architecture and we'll be able to build that in the US. So, we'll have a lander that has a very high probability of being successful in the first mission,” Salwan said.

Salwan declined to comment on a number of questions, including the terms of the agreement, its cost, the timing of the partnership discussions and the extent of the companies' future cooperation on the project.

The original failed lander, called the Beresheet, was created by IAI and SpaceIL, an Israeli non-profit that aims to both land the first Israeli spacecraft on the moon and promote STEM. The Beresheet was supposed to be used for the Google Lunar XPRIZE competition, a challenge held in 2018 to compel private companies to send spacecraft to the moon.

In addition, the craft would have to travel 500 meters on the surface and send images and video back to earth.

However, when the X Prize Foundation - a non profit which held the competition along with a sponsorship by Google - spoke with all five finalists, they determined that none would achieve the specified goals by the March 31 deadline. 

Though a winner was never chosen, SpaceIL and IAI ultimately continued to pursue the competition's original goals and sent Beresheet to the moon with the SpaceX Falcon 9 as the launch vehicle.

It encountered trouble during landing, moments after the craft returned a "selfie" photograph of itself near the moon's surface.  According to The New York Times, the Beresheet's main engine shut off, and soon afterward communication with the lunar lander was lost.

"With space, you don’t always get it right the first time,” Salwan said.

Salwan said that the Genesis will be "an improved and updated version of the Beresheet design.”

The Genesis' future takeoff will be carried by technology developed for a launch device by Firefly Aerospace called the Firefly Alpha, which recently passed a crucial test toward flight qualification. 

More specifically, the Genesis will be launched with what the company calls the Firefly Beta, an uncompleted launch device with three Alpha cores strapped together.

According to a statement by Boaz Levi,  general manager and executive vice president of IAI Systems, Missiles & Space Group, "the experience gained in the Beresheet moon mission, co-developed with SpaceIL, puts IAI at the forefront of lunar lander technology..."

"We see in Firefly a similar mix of courage and technological knowledge that fits the IAI spirit and will drive us to the moon quickly and robustly," the statement read.

A spokesperson for IAI, Estie Rosen, referred most questions on the deal to Firefly Aerospace when contacted.

"We are excited to offer our knowhow and share our experience with Firefly. We hope this cooperation will bring a U.S. built lunar lander to the moon and continue our journey to the moon. This is an exciting cooperation," Rosen said.

Firefly Aerospace is one of nine companies chosen by NASA in late November 2018 that were allowed to bid for contracts as part of the agency's Commercial Lunar Payload Service (CLPS), a program to contract transportation services to deliver science and technology payloads to the surface of the moon. 

Grey Hautaluoma, a NASA spokesperson, said of the deal that "we don’t comment on our commercial partners’ agreements that don’t involve NASA, but we look forward to Firefly’s participation in CLPS."