NASA is enabling a growing U.S. commercial launch market and offering low-cost access to space for a wide range of science and technology needs – from Earth-facing satellites that gather climate data to probes that study the solar system and beyond.

To launch missions like these, NASA turns to both new and experienced companies using a variety of flexible contracts that align with commercial industry practices. With this approach, the agency can offer more access to space for more science.

“Our policy is to have a mixed-fleet launch strategy to use both existing and emerging domestic launch capability to assure access to space for NASA payloads and missions,” said Bradley Smith, director of Launch Services for Operations at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “To select an appropriate rocket, NASA turns to the Launch Services Program to assess payloads across many categories including complexity, orbit, and schedule. But most importantly, we are trying to balance the risk we are willing to accept between the payload and the rocket. When we have the flexibility to reduce launch costs for missions that can tolerate more risk, we also help open the aperture for innovative research and technology demonstrations that bring even more people in science research.”

For example, missions awarded through the NASA’s Launch Services (NLS) II contract include the most complex, least risk tolerant missions like the agency’s Lucy mission to Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids and Mars 2020. The NLS II awards give even the most complex missions the highest probability of launch success.

However, some payloads can tolerate a higher level of risk while also helping grow the U.S. launch market. These include small research satellites that fly under the Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS) contracts, the Venture Class Launch Services Demonstration 2 (VCLS Demo 2) contracts, the Venture-Class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare (VADR) missions, as well as occasional stand-alone contracts for similar types of payloads with a high-risk tolerance.

NASA awarded a firm fixed-price contract to Astra to conduct three launches – two CubeSats each – for NASA’s Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of SmallSats (TROPICS) mission. The TROPICS mission is intended to increase the scientific community’s understanding of storm processes. For TROPICS, different launches are necessary to place the CubeSats in different orbital planes.

On June 12, Astra’s first TROPICS launch had a normal first stage flight, but the upper stage of the rocket shut down early and failed to deliver the two CubeSats to orbit. Designed as a lower-cost, higher risk mission, TROPICS can still provide improved time-resolved observations of tropical cyclones compared to traditional observation methods with two successful launches of the remaining four satellites. Building in redundancy from the outset of the mission is another way of acknowledging and mitigating risk.                              

A different standalone contract award to Rocket Lab is enabling a pathfinding lunar CubeSat mission. Rocket Lab’s planned launch of the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) from the company’s Launch Complex 1 in Mahia, New Zealand, will demonstrate a unique lunar orbit intended for Gateway, a lunar outpost in orbit built by NASA’s commercial and international partners that will launch as part of the Artemis program.

NASA is the customer providing the payloads for these missions but, unlike NLS II missions, the agency’s launch services team does not have an active role on launch day. By adapting a more commercial approach, LSP has limited involvement and oversight of missions that can tolerate high risk.

“Our science and exploration payload customers let us know how much risk they are willing to accept for a given mission.” said Smith. “That philosophy guides them during the design and development of their payloads. LSP then selects a launch vehicle for the appropriate level of risk tolerance, with Class A payloads having the least risk tolerance and Class D payloads able to tolerate the most risk.”

Through careful analysis and evaluation – along with prudent risk – NASA can make sure that payloads find the appropriate rockets to meet all the mission requirements, reducing costs while supporting new launch providers and sending a wide variety of payloads to space that benefit people on Earth.

Learn more about NASA’s Launch Services Program at: