NASA Adds New Class of Small Launch Vehicles

NASA’s Launch Services Program, which operates out of Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, held a press teleconference on Monday to discuss its decision to add a new class of launch vehicles to its existing portfolio. Called VCLS, or Venture Class Launch Services, the new category is intended to help define and promote the burgeoning cubesat and smallsat launch market.

As part of the VCLS introduction,  the Launch Services Program has issued a draft request for proposal for at least one, and possible more demonstration flights of new launchers for what it considers “high risk tolerant” payloads.  The intended mass range is a cumulative 60 kg to LEO, and vendors may elect to offer a dual 30 kg packages as part of a multiple flight scenario. The launches, which could be to destinations beyond LEO, must take place by April 15th, 2018.

As for who might bid, and what form the launch vehicles may take, NASA is keeping it rather quiet, hoping to cast as wide a net as possible and “see what they (vendors) can bring to the table” without the agency driving the design. Recent years have seen a number of new entrants into the small and  “micro” launch vehicle market, but as of yet, none have made to the launch pad, or to the runway.

In 2013, LSP issued a launch award to Generation Orbit Services Inc. of Atlanta for its air launched GOLauncher2 rocket to boost 3 cubesats to LEO. That award came under the previous NASA Launch Services Enabling eXploration and Technology (NEXT) contract, but speaking Monday, officials said that the overall category as previously defined turned out to be too small.

The VCLS is intended to serve primarily a backlog of government funded small satellite projects which are currently limited to rideshare opportunities with companies such as Spaceflight Services, which make launch arrangements for clients whose payloads are secondary or tertiary passengers on much larger launch vehicles. While the price of rideshare launches, which begin at roughly $80,000 for a 10cm x 10cm x 10cm 1U cubesat, are generally lower than what NASA anticipates will be the case under its new program, it can also come which frustrating limitations such as limited selection of the delivery orbit, as well as long waits for a flight in the first place.

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  1. I would expect bids from Firefly and possibly from Rocket Labs in New Zealand. Kudos to NASA for forward thinking on this one.

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