Firefly responds to concerns on rocket safety, water use



BRIGGS – Thomas E. Markusic wants to send things to space.

His new neighbors, however, are more concerned about the dwindling water supply here on earth.

Markusic’s company, Firefly Space Systems, purchased 200 acres of land in Burnet County to test rocket engines near the small community of Briggs just north of Liberty Hill.

At the Community Center’s monthly meeting Monday, Briggs residents wanted to learn just how he planned to use the land.

After confirming there would be no launches, just tests, from Briggs, the conversation circled back to how much water it would cost the community.

“Water, that’s the biggest concern,” said Jack Mabe, one of more than 80 people to attend the meeting. “We certainly don’t have a lot of it. I want to trust (Markusic). As I told him, as long as you don’t give me a reason to think otherwise, I believe he’s an honest man.”

Markusic has worked with some of the leading companies in the aerospace field, including a stint as the director of the test site and principle propulsion engineer for SpaceX in McGregor – southeast of Waco.

Firefly was started to serve the small satellite market, which Markusic said is currently underserved in the aerospace community. Once operational, the company will build rockets that will allow clients to launch satellites at a lower cost.

These smaller satellites will serve a variety of needs, including earth imaging and communications.

“They can do a variety of things,” Markusic said. “We’re working with a number of clients. With these small satellites you can have live imaging of earth, something that in the future could be used in real-time to help police officers catch a person in a chase.”

While Markusic fielded some questions about what products Firefly would be building, most of the questions during the 90-minute meeting circled back to the water issue in Central Texas.

“How much water will you be taking from our aquifer?” Judy Parnell asked during the meeting. “If you’re going to be cooling giant rockets, that sounds like it will take a lot.”

Markusic said there would be 10,000 gallons held on site, which he said is required by law for emergencies and putting out any potential fires. However, he said for the first nine months water use would be at a minimum while the first of three test stands is being used. After that, Markusic estimated it would use about “2,000 gallons per week for tests.”

“We’ll be building three stands to test the rocket engines,” Markusic said. “The first is going to be a horizontal stand, so that burns off naturally into the air. The second stand will be a vertical stand, which will need to be cooled by water.”

There were also several logistic questions. What will these tests sound like? And, is there any danger to the community?

“These tests take seconds, sometimes up to 20 at the longest. You can learn a lot from an engine test in one second,” Markusic said. “It’ll sound like a loud rumble, pretty much like thunder. It’s something you won’t hear unless you’re listening for it.”

And about the safety?

“There isn’t any pollution issue with what we’re doing,” Markusic said. “Everything we’re burning is non-toxic – it’s kerosene and natural gas … I want to be a good neighbor. I have no plans of hurting Briggs.”

Firefly plans to start running its first tests at the facility in March 2015. And as the company grows, Markusic plans to bring “150 to 200 employees” within three years.

Many of those jobs will be high-paying PhD level engineering jobs, which will split time between Briggs and the corporate headquarters in Cedar Park. However, Markusic said the site would need to hire all skill levels to run the site’s day-to-day logistics.

“I’m very glad to see something like this come to Briggs,” Fred French said. “I’m very impressed. It’s always good to see something like this bring in new jobs.”

Monday’s community discussion was the first face-to-face meeting between the company and the residents of Briggs. Some residents said the question and answer period changed their initial perceptions of the company.

“When I first heard about it I was very upset,” Parnell said after the meeting. “They answered all the questions. If they’re not hiding anything, I’m happy. But if they’re trying to pull anything over on us we’re going to have to start all over again.”