NASA selects a dozen companies for small satellite launch services

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

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 small satellites, especially those with higher risk tolerance. These payloads will be launched either on dedicated missions or as rideshare payloads on other launches.

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

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

Of the 12 companies, six have made 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 hosts launches on a wide range of vehicles, including many other VADR winners. L2 Solutions, also known as OmniTeq, provides ride-sharing 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 has suspended preparations for its next launch in December at the behest of the federal government while the company’s largest shareholder, Noosphere Venture Partners, is divesting its 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 Firefly’s submission to the VADR program.

Astra, another VCLS winner, is preparing to fly this mission soon from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The company conducted a static test-firing of its 3.3 rocket from Space Launch Complex 46 on Jan. 22, after which it said it would announce a launch date for the mission once it receives a license to launch. Federal Aviation Administration launch.

Astra also won a NASA contract 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 contract with NASA in 2020 to launch a small lunar satellite, CAPSTONE.

NASA created the VADR to streamline the provisioning of these launches. Companies that have won VADR contracts are not guaranteed to launch, but instead must compete for individual task orders issued by the agency, similar to the structure of its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. The contracts are indefinitely delivered, indefinite quantity awards, with a maximum value for all contracts of $300 million over five years.

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