WASHINGTON — ABL Space Systems, a California-based launch startup, announced March 24 it has secured a $60 million contract from the U.S. Space Force and U.S. Air Force that also includes matching funds from private investors, a type of agreement known as strategic funding increase, or STRATFI

The contract is for ground and flight demonstrations in “tactically responsive space,” an initiative championed by Congress to tap commercial rockets for rapid-response missions that could be needed if military satellites are targeted in a conflict. 

ABL’s agreement includes $30 million in government funding and $30 million in matching funds from the company’s investors. 

Under the contract ABL, will seek to demonstrate “operational flexibility for low-cost launches supporting tactically responsive space,” the company said. 

Small launcher RS1

ABL developed a small launch vehicle called RS1 capable of placing up to 1,350 kilograms into low Earth orbit. It attempted its first launch Jan. 10 from Pacific Spaceport Complex – Alaska on Kodiak Island but the mission failed. The company has not yet announced when it make its next launch attempt. 

The company views the U.S. military as a key customer that could benefit from the company’s mobile infrastructure for responsive launch missions. The RS1 vehicle uses a containerized ground system  that allows it to launch from sites with minimal infrastructure. 

The company is one of four small-launch startups that recently were assigned historic launch pads at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida. 

ABL got Space Launch Complex 15, which was used for Titan 1 and 2 launches in the 1960s. The company will temporarily conduct launches from SLC-46, a pad that has been used by several other vehicles.

ABL has raised several hundred million dollars from venture capital firms, including $200 million in October 2021 in a round that valued the company at $2.4 billion

Lockheed Martin is both a strategic investor and a major customer, having signed a contract in April 2021 for as many as 58 RS1 launches through the end of decade. It also selected the RS1 to perform its “U.K. Pathfinder” launch from the SaxaVord Spaceport in the Shetland Islands later in 2023.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...