NASA’s Venture Class Announcement & New Chinese Small Launcher Too

LauncherOne Image Credit Virgin Galactic

Image Credit Virgin Galactic

Yesterday, NASA held a press conference to formally announce the winners of its initial Venture Class Launch Services competition. Given that notice of the awards, which went to Virgin Galactic, Rocket Lab and Firefly Space Systems was posted over two weeks ago, the event was somewhat redundant, but did shed new light on the agency’s goals as well as each company’s philosophy and timing.

For its part, NASA foresees a flood tide of cubesats which it will be involved with in some way. More in fact than it has the resources to launch on rideshare opportunities for government vehicles. While the agency is hopeful that the establishment of the Venture Class will benefit the overall small vehicle launch market, its primary motivation is to find dedicated launch slots for all those spacecraft, with the more risk tolerant payloads being pushed to the front of the line.

Each of the three companies was awarded a single launch, and each launch will carry somewhere between 45 and 90 “units” worth of cubesats. A standard 10 cm x 10 cm x 10 cm cubesat counts as a “U” with multiples up to 6U possible.

Rocket Lab, which appears to be somewhat ahead of its co-winners, bid its launch at $6.9M, which is quite a bit more than the $4.9M asking pricing for a commercial launch. Already sounding like an established vendor, the company explained that the increase was due to the fact that taking place as the Electron rocket’s 5th flight, it considers the vehicle will be already proven. Moreover, complying with NASA requirements, even for cubesats, carries a premium. In other words, even if you are launching bottle rockets, if there’s a NASA logo on them, there’s gonna be a mission assurance charge baked in. (More if its says USAF)

On the other end of the spectrum, both Firefly and Virgin Galactic are offering NASA early customer discounts off their planned pricing, which is $8M for the former, and “less than $10M” for the latter.



Interestingly, both Firefly’s Alpha and Rocket Lab’s Electron are likely to use the same pad, KSC’s recently announced 39C, a dedicated small rocket pad which borders the USAF’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne will of course be air-launched, and while the carrier vehicle has yet to be announced, it would come as no surprise if KSC’s Shuttle Landing Strip was not the host runway for its Venture debut as well. Each launch must take place before April of 2018.

Meanwhile, all three companies are facing a possible competitor in China, which according to a story in Space News, believes it has found a way to get around export control restrictions under the ITAR regime which has kept that nation’s commercial launch industry hamstrung for the nearly last two decades. Under the plan, China would export a new small booster, the Naga L, to be launched from other countries, presumably under the authority and flag of the host nation. With performance features listed as 600 kg to a 800 kg Sun Synchronous Orbit at a cost of $10 M, the two stage booster would occupy an an advantageous price point.

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