WASHINGTON — Firefly Aerospace announced Jan. 25 it will compete for launch services contracts from the National Reconnaissance Office under a new program set up by the agency to procure rides for its small satellites. 

The company will be allowed to bid for task orders to launch NRO small satellites on Firefly’s Alpha rocket from both Vandenberg Space Force Base, California, and from Cape Canaveral, Florida. 

The NRO created the contract vehicle known as SLIC, short for Streamlined Launch Indefinite Delivery, Indefinite Quantity Contract, to procure commercial launch services for its more risk-tolerant missions. The first task order under the SLIC contract was awarded to the now-defunct company Virgin Orbit.

The SLIC program is projected to award about $700 million in task orders over 10 years. The NRO continues to rely on traditional heavy-lift national security launch vehicles for its larger and more critical payloads.

SLIC is open to U.S. launch vehicles that have successfully flown to orbit and allows providers to bid dedicated, rideshare or multi-manifest launch services.

The NRO designs and operates America’s intelligence satellites. Like other government and commercial entities, it is increasingly utilizing small satellites for various purposes, including reconnaissance, communications and scientific research. The agency in recent years has shown a willingness to embrace commercial launch providers and smaller launch vehicles, and has become a regular customer of Rocket Lab’s Electron small rocket. 

Four launches so far

Firefly’s most recent launch was a Dec. 22 mission for Lockheed Martin. A problem with the upper stage of the Alpha rocket placed the payload into the wrong orbit.

This was the fourth launch of the Alpha, three months after it successfully launched the Victus Nox responsive space demonstration for the U.S. Space Force. A launch in October 2022 also reached orbit, but the smallsat payloads it carried reentered days after launch after being placed in an elliptical orbit rather than a higher circular orbit. Firefly claimed the launch was a success despite the early satellite reentries.

In a Jan. 25 news release, Firefly said its next two missions scheduled for later this year are for NASA and for the commercial startup Xtenti, which won an NRO contract to launch a “responsive space” mission. 

This mission will launch on Alpha and will feature Firefly’s orbital vehicle Elytra, designed to carry rideshare payloads. Elytra will deploy commercial rideshare payloads before performing an on-orbit maneuver. After the maneuver, Elytra will remain in orbit on standby, prepared to deploy U.S. government payloads on demand.

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...