Rocket Lab's Electron small-satellite launcher didn’t make orbit in its May 2017 debut but a second launch in January orbited cubesats for Planet and Spire. Credit: Rocket Lab

To prepare for a new generation of small rockets promising dedicated rides to orbit for small satellites, NASA, the U.S. Air Force, the National Reconnaissance Office and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency are setting aside money and trimming oversight.

“Everybody wants a small launch because it’s nice to have your own ride,” Randall Riddle, Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center engineer for the Launch Enterprise Small Launch and Targets Division, said at the 2018 Small Payload Rideshare Symposium last month at the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.

“In the past, the cost differential has been on the order of 10 times as much to get a small launch as it was to be a small rider on a big launch. Now, it’s more like two times or three times. That’s a much different calculus when you are deciding if you can afford a dedicated launch,” Riddle said June 13.

To date, the vast majority of small satellites have piggybacked on large rockets. In recent years, however, dozens of companies around the world have announced plans to offer dedicated rides for spacecraft as small as cubesats, although most of the new rockets promise rides for 200- to 500-kilogram payloads, said Warren Frick, Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems program manager for advanced projects and a leader of the Small Payload Rideshare Association’s launch services technical committee.

Only six rockets currently flying offer dedicated rides for payloads of 1,000 kilograms or less. They are China’s Kaitouzhe-2, Kuaizhou-1A and Long March 11 rockets, Northrop Grumman’s Pegasus and Minotaur 1, and Rocket Lab’s Electron, which reached orbit for the first time in January. Many more firms plan to begin commercial operations in the next few years, including Virgin Orbit, Vector Launch, Firefly Aerospace and Stratolaunch.

Government officials are eager to see what the new entrants offer in terms of launch prices and quick access to orbit.

Independence day

“Small satellites trying to hitch rides are beholden to the primary mission,” said Air Force Lt. Col. A. J. Ashby, materiel leader in the NRO’s Office of Space Launch acquisition division. “These small rockets provide an excellent opportunity to be the master of your own ship, to go when and where and how you want to go.”

That’s important for NASA researchers eager to make observations from a particular orbit, said Mary Faller, NASA senior mission manager for the Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Services Program. NASA researchers also are eager to conduct scientific research with constellations of cubesats launched on small rockets. “They can take higher risks because if they lose one, they have this whole constellation to fill in the gap,” she added.

The Air Force, DARPA and NRO officials said at the Rideshare Symposium that the new rockets have national security implications, as well.

“Today we build billion-dollar spacecraft over the course of five or six or eight or 10 years,” said Todd Master, program adviser in DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office. “I think you will see a shift given advances in microelectronics communications that allows you to make better use of disaggregated spacecraft or even spacecraft going up individually and combining into something larger on orbit.”

LEO liberation

With the new small rockets, military agencies could consider “a massive proliferation of satellites in low Earth orbit,” Master said. “That is one approach to resilience we are very interested in. Being able to do that on a timescale relevant to military need is something we don’t have today.”

Plus, the small rockets will make the U.S. launch infrastructure more durable, said Steve Nixon, vice president for strategic development at Stratolaunch, a firm backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen that plans to launch rockets from the world’s largest aircraft. Although the issue does not get much attention, “our existing launch infrastructure is fixed with two main sites on the East and West Coast,” Nixon said.

Stratolaunch and some of the other new launch providers will offer U.S. agencies alternative routes to orbit if an adversary disrupts operations at California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base and Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, he added.

To spur development and production of the new rockets, government agencies are awarding contracts, offering prizes, and streamlining the acquisition bureaucracy.

“Mission assurance monster”

Through Venture Class Launch Services, NASA awarded contracts in 2015 to send cubesats into orbit with Rocket Lab, Virgin Galactic and Firefly Space Systems, a firm that declared bankruptcy in 2016 and re-emerged from bankruptcy in 2017 as Firefly Aerospace. NASA modified requirements and government oversight for those contracts.

“We don’t demand a bunch of meetings,” Faller said. “We are willing to provide advice and suggestions but [the companies] don’t have to follow them.”

NRO is streamlining its rocket procurement processes. “The NRO Office of Space Launch is no longer a monolithic mission assurance monster,” Ashby said. “We don’t want to make it hard to do business with us.”

Instead of “baking in all kinds of hard requirements,” the NRO Office of Space Launch will modify requirements based on the risk tolerance of the mission, Ashby said.

NRO expects to have funding for two Minotaur-class launches every year. “Normally when we build a budget for a launch vehicle, we have to defend it with regard to a particular mission assigned to it,” Ashby said. “A big paradigm shift is we are able to protect that budget without having to assign missions to it.”

SMC expects additional funding as well. “As soon as we have a fiscal year 2019 budget, we’ll have a new budget line for dedicated small launches,” Riddle said. “We are looking forward to that.”

SMC has “a little over half a dozen space launch efforts now, including several new Other Transaction Authority agreements with some of the new small launch providers,” Riddle said. “We’ll be stepping out to buy about another half dozen in this upcoming 12 months.”

Defense and intelligence agencies use Other Transaction Authority agreements for prototype projects. Unlike standard procurement awards, they are not subject to the lengthy Federal Acquisition Regulations.

DARPA, meanwhile, is accepting applications for its launch challenge, a competition in 2019 the agency hopes will foster the growth of the small launch industry. Companies competing for a $10 million grand prize will have “days to weeks” notice to send small satellites to orbit, without any prior knowledge of the payloads, orbit or launch site, Master said.

This article originally appeared in the July 30, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...