Firefly's Alpha rocket
Firefly's Alpha rocket. Credit: Firefly Space Systems

WASHINGTON — NASA announced Oct. 14 that it is awarding more than $17 million in contracts for dedicated launches of cubesats to three companies, none of which has placed a single satellite into orbit.

As part of its Venture Class Launch Services program, NASA awarded contracts for one launch each to Firefly Space Systems of Cedar Park, Texas; Rocket Lab USA, headquartered in Los Angeles but with most of its engineering staff based in New Zealand; and Virgin Galactic of Long Beach, California. The combined value of the contracts was $17.1 million.

The program is designed to provide dedicated launches of groups of cubesats. Such satellites today typically fly as secondary payloads, with little control over their orbit and schedule. An existing NASA program, called Education Launch of Nanosatellite, or ELaNa, arranges the launch of NASA and university cubesats on NASA-sponsored missions with excess capacity.

Garrett Skrobot. Credit: NASA
Garrett Skrobot. Credit: NASA

“Until today, cubesats have basically depended on other launch vehicles to obtain their rides into space as piggybacks,” said Garrett Skrobot, head of the ELaNa program, during an Oct. 14 press conference at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “Now, we are riding first class.”

The three contracts, he said, will allow ELaNa to fly the 50 cubesats it has yet to assign to other launches. Each launch will carry between 45 and 90 “units” of cubesats, where a unit is a cube 10 centimeters on a side. While some cubesats are the size of a single unit, others are up to six units in size.

All three companies are still developing their small satellite launch vehicles, with first launches planned no sooner than early 2016. NASA officials acknowledged at the press conference that this approach carries some risk, since there is no guarantee that the vehicles will be ready as scheduled, or at all.

“We’re definitely going after a high-risk approach here,” acknowledged Mark Wiese, the flight projects office chief for NASA’s Launch Services Program. “The cubesats represent that high risk tolerant payload, which are perfect for the demonstration of a first flight.”

Wiese declined to state how many proposals the agency received in this competition. Since none of the vehicles are currently flying, he said that NASA judged the proposals on both their proposed cost and technical maturity. “We’re excited that we’re able to award three,” he said. “It’s an outstanding opportunity to get that first push for competition.”

Rocket Lab Electron
Rocket Lab’s Electron small launch vehicle. Credit: Rocket Lab
Rocket Lab’s Electron small launch vehicle. Credit: Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab expects to be the first to launch. Peter Beck, chief executive of the company, said its launch for NASA is scheduled for late 2016 or early 2017, and will be the fifth launch overall for the Electron small launch vehicle. Beck said the company has an agreement for access to Pad 39C at KSC, a new launch pad designed for small launch vehicles, and may use it for the NASA mission.

Firefly Space Systems plans to carry out its NASA launch in March 2018, said Maureen Gannon, vice president of business development. That launch will come after a series of suborbital test flights of its Firefly Alpha rocket the company plans to perform from Pad 39C starting in early 2017.

The Venture Class launch is Firefly Space Systems’ first contract. “We have a lot of customers in negotiation, but this is the first formal contract we’ve signed,” company co-founder P. J. King said in an Oct. 14 interview. The launch will be the rocket’s first operational mission, which he said will also likely use Pad 39C.

LauncherOne. Credit: Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic did not give an estimated date for its Venture Class mission, but in a statement the company said that it would take place “just before the start of our routine commercial operations” of its LauncherOne system. NASA requires that the launches take place by April 2018.

Both Firefly Space Systems and Virgin Galactic are offering NASA a discount over their list prices because the agency is an early customer. Firefly sells Alpha launches for $8 million each, and Virgin Galactic sells LauncherOne missions for “less than” $10 million each. However, the NASA contract with Firefly is valued at $5.5 million, and the Virgin contract at $4.7 million.

“Our price is relative to the level of risk the customer is willing to undertake,” said Steven Isakowitz, president of Virgin Galactic. “In the case of NASA, they wanted to fly on one of our early launches.”

By contrast, Rocket Lab, which sells Electron launches for $4.9 million each, received a $6.9 million contract from NASA. Beck said the Electron will be “fully commercial” by the time of the NASA mission. “Our price is a little bit higher based on the extra requirements that are involved for a NASA mission over a standard, basic commercial mission,” he said.

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...