Astra test-fired its Rocket 3.3 vehicle Jan. 22 ahead of a launch from Cape Canaveral in the near future for NASA's VCLS program. Credit: Astra/John Kraus

WASHINGTON — NASA awarded contracts Jan. 26 to a dozen companies, ranging from industry stalwarts to startups yet to launch their first rocket, to provide low-cost launches of agency smallsats.

NASA said it selected the companies for its Venture-Class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare (VADR) program, which will provide launches of cubesats and other smallsats, particularly those with a higher risk tolerance. Those payloads will be launched either on dedicated missions or as rideshare payloads on other launches.

VADR is intended to build upon the agency’s earlier Venture-Class Launch Services (VCLS) demonstration efforts, which awarded contracts for single launches to several companies to support development of new small launch vehicles. Rocket Lab and Virgin Orbit carried out VCLS launches under contracts awarded in 2015. Astra Space, Firefly Aerospace and Relativity Space won VCLS Demo 2 contracts in 2020 for missions launching this year.

Bradley Smith, director of launch services at NASA Headquarters, noted in a statement that the winners include “a broad range of established and emerging launch providers and launch service aggregators and brokers,” companies that arrange launches on other companies’ vehicles. “With this new tool in our toolbox, these tremendously flexible contracts will meet a wide variety of NASA science and technology needs.”

Of the 12 companies, six have conducted at least one successful orbital launch: Astra, Northrop Grumman, Rocket Lab, SpaceX, United Launch Alliance and Virgin Orbit. Four companies are developing vehicles for first launches in the next few years: ABL Space Systems, Blue Origin, Phantom Space and Relativity.

Two others are launch brokers. Spaceflight arranges launches on a wide range of vehicles, including many of the other VADR awardees. L2 Solutions, also known as OmniTeq, provides rideshare services through a subsidiary, SEOPS.

Notably absent from the winners is Firefly, which made its first orbital launch attempt of its Alpha rocket in September and had planned to launch its VCLS mission later this year. Firefly paused preparations for its next launch in December at the request of the federal government while the company’s largest shareholder, Noosphere Venture Partners, divests it stake at the request of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States. A company spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on whether Firefly bid on the VADR program.

Astra, another VCLS awardee, is preparing to carry out that mission from Cape Canaveral, Florida, soon. The company performed a static-fire test of its Rocket 3.3 from Space Launch Complex 46 there Jan. 22, after which it said it would announce a launch date for the mission once it received a launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Astra also won a contract from NASA in February 2021 for three launches of its Rocket 3 vehicle to deploy a small constellation of Earth science satellites called TROPICS. Rocket Lab won a NASA contract in 2020 for the launch of a lunar smallsat, CAPSTONE.

NASA established VADR to streamline the procurement of such launches. Companies that won VADR contracts are not guaranteed any launches but instead must compete for individual task orders issued by the agency, similar to the structure for its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. The contracts are indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity awards, with a maximum value across all the contracts of $300 million over five years.

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...