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Foust Forward | NASA’s new launch contract creates a lack-of-sticker shock

Clockwise from left: Human Landing System concepts from SpaceX, Dynetics and Blue Origin.
Clockwise from left: Human Landing System concepts from SpaceX, Dynetics and Blue Origin.

Hours before the successful launch of the Artemis 1 mission, NASA made other news about its efforts to return humans to the moon. The agency said that it was modifying its Human Landing System contract with SpaceX to add a second lunar landing demonstration. That effort, called “Option B” by NASA, would include upgrades to the Starship lander to support later, longer-duration Artemis missions.

The announcement was not a surprise since NASA stated in March its intent to exercise Option B while, in parallel, running a competition to select another company to develop a second lander. What was surprising, though, was what was not included in the Option B announcement: the value of the award.

It turns out the omission was an oversight: within a couple hours, NASA updated the press release to note that the award was worth $1.15 billion. But, in other cases, NASA is less willing to disclose the value of contract awards as it moves to more commercial models of doing business.

A week after the Option B award, NASA announced it selected Rocket Lab to launch the remaining four satellites of a cubesat constellation called TROPICS, designed to monitor the development of tropical weather systems. NASA originally selected Astra to launch those satellites, giving the company a $7.95 million contract for three launches of its Rocket 3.3 vehicle. But after the first launch carrying two TROPICS cubesats failed, Astra retired Rocket 3.3, forcing NASA to select a new launch provider for the other four satellites.

Rocket Lab said it would perform two dedicated launches of its Electron rocket from its new launch complex in Virginia for TROPICS, but the announcement did not disclose the value of the award. NASA has traditionally released the value of new launch contracts.

Neither NASA nor Rocket Lab, when contacted, would disclose the value of the launch deal, each offering identical statements: “Pricing provided in response to launch service task orders under VADR are competed in a closed environment and as such are considered proprietary to the indefinite-delivery/ indefinite-quantity contract.”

VADR is short for Venture-class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare, a contract NASA awarded in January to a dozen companies (a thirteenth, Firefly Aerospace, was added later). The award was designed to make it easier for the agency to procure launches for some missions, particularly those willing to accept higher levels of risk. A byproduct, though, appears to be a lack of insight into why NASA selects companies for those missions and how much it’s paying.

The Rocket Lab example is not an isolated case. Two days later, NASA announced that it awarded four VADR task orders to Phantom Space to launch cubesats no earlier than 2024. NASA again did not disclose the value of the award.

Phantom Space, whose Daytona rocket remains in development, said it would launch cubesats on the second and fourth launches of that rocket under the task orders but did not disclose any other details. (The company, perhaps living up to its name, ghosted a reporter who asked about the value of the award.)

Opacity in launch prices is nothing new in the commercial market. Even SpaceX, which broke with convention years ago by publishing launch prices for its Falcon rockets, will vary what it charges from customer to customer based on terms of the deal. However, when it comes to government missions, there has long been an expectation of openness because of the nature of government contracting.

Streamlined procurement is certainly welcomed, but it should not come at the expense of transparency. Not knowing how much NASA spends for a launch or why it picked a particular provider sets an unfortunate precedent that could become more frequent as NASA increasingly adopts commercial practices. One day, NASA might issue a press release about a lunar lander award and the omission of a price mentioned in it would not be an oversight.


Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. His Foust Forward column appears in every issue of the magazine. This column ran in the December 2022 issue.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...