NASA’s Sky High Pegasus Contract Shows SmallSat Launcher Opportunity

$16.5 Million Dollars Ago.  OSC Pegasus Launches IRIS. Image Credit : NASA

In case there was any doubt there is still a long, long way to go in reducing launch prices across the spectrum, consider this NASA press release from November 20th.


NASA Awards Launch Services Contract for Ionospheric Connection Explorer

NASA has selected Orbital Sciences Corporation of Dulles, Virginia, to provide launch services for the Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) mission.

ICON is targeted to launch in June 2017 from the Reagan Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll in the Republic of the Marshall Islands aboard a Pegasus XL launch vehicle from Orbital’s “Stargazer” L-1011 aircraft.

The total cost for NASA to launch ICON under this new firm-fixed price launch services task order is approximately $56.3 million. This includes spacecraft processing, payload integration, tracking, data and telemetry and other launch support requirements.

ICON will study the interface between the upper reaches of Earth’s atmosphere and space in response to a recent scientific discovery that the ionosphere, positioned at the edge of space where the sun ionizes the air to create charged particles, is significantly influenced by storms in the lower atmosphere. ICON also will help NASA better understand how atmospheric winds control ionospheric variability.

End press release

At $56.5 million for a single Pegasus flight, NASA is coming perilously close to paying Orbital Sciences the same amount for a 450 kg capacity to LEO or SSO launch vehicle that commercial operators are paying SpaceX for a 4,850 kg. capacity to GTO ($61.2 million on the SpaceX website.) Previous contracts for Pegasus were $55 million for CYGNSS, $40 million for IRIS and $36 million for NuSTAR.

The point is not that NASA should be booking smallsat launches on the Falcon 9. SpaceX voluntarily left that business when it dropped the Falcon 1 from its product line. Rather the cost of the Pegasus has now risen to the point that it could be a considered a significant impediment to new small science missions, even as it highlights the opportunities awaiting a new generation of small launchers if only they can get off the pad (or the runway). To some extent, NASA is already helping.

Generation Orbit, a Georgia based company which plans to use a business jet to launch its GoLauncher 2 rocket, was the recipient of a $2.1 million dollar contract in September 2013. The contract, which is part of the NASA Launch Services Enabling eXploration and Technology (NEXT) effort to spur new small launchers, calls for Generation Orbit to loft three 3U-configuration cubesats to a 264 mile orbit next August.

GoLauncher 2 Image Credit: Generation Orbit

GoLauncher 2
Image Credit: Generation Orbit

While Generation Orbit is focused on payloads of 100 lbs. or less, at least three companies; Virgin Galactic, Swiss Space Systems and Firefly Space Systems are all targeting slightly more capable boosters. Virgin Galactic, which is developing the LauncherOne air-launched two stage rocket, anticipates a 250 kg launch capability for approximately $10 million. Swiss Space Systems is right on top of that number, also projecting a 250 kg/$10 million mission figure for its own air-launched, partially re-usable system.

The most recent entry into the field is Firefly Space Systems, the SpaceX spin-off (former SpaceX Principle Propulsion Engineer Tom Markusic is its founder and CEO) which is developing the LNG fueled Firefly Alpha booster.  At 400 kg capacity and a sub $10 million asking price, the Alpha, which features a two stage, all-composite,  self pressurizing aerospike design might be the best bet to become the “Pegasus killer” the SpaceX Falcon 1 was meant to be.

Firefly Alpha Image Credit: firefly Space Systems

Firefly Alpha
Image Credit: firefly Space Systems

With a long history and a success streak that stretches back for 28 consecutive missions, the Pegasus may prove difficult to dislodge until a lower cost competitor can string together enough successful launches to qualify under NASA’s Launch Services Program. Given the delays which invariably arise with any launch development effort, the qualification process could easily last well into the next decade.  For a new generation of space scientists energized by the possibilities of affordable small, micro and nano sized spacecraft, the still too high costs of getting to orbit is a major obstacle.

While the booming small and cubesat industries will eventually provide the market necessary to support these emerging small launchers, the unsustainable cost escalation of the Pegasus booster suggests it is time to expedite that transition by expanding NEXT to a COTS style acquisition program aimed at fast forwarding the small launch industry.

NASA helped transform the medium and EELV class launch industry by providing SpaceX up to 15 launch opportunities for the Falcon 9 in a $396 million dollar effort which also included the substantial costs of developing the Dragon spacecraft. One wonders what might be accomplished by applying some of the lessons learned to the small side of the industry.

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