NASA announced that the businesses have been chosen for its Venture-Class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare (VADR) programme, which will offer launches of cubesats and other smallsats, with a higher risk tolerance. Those payloads will be deployed as dedicated missions or as part of a rideshare payload on other rockets.
VADR will build on the agency’s previous Venture-Class Launch Services (VCLS) demonstration initiatives, which gave contracts for single launches to a number of companies to aid in the development of new small launch vehicles. The VCLS launches were carried out under contracts awarded in 2015 to Rocket Lab and Virgin Orbit. VCLS Demo 2 contracts were awarded to Astra Space, Firefly Aerospace, and Relativity Space in 2020 for flights launching this year.
“A broad range of established and emerging launch providers and launch service aggregators and brokers,” companies that arrange launches on other companies’ vehicles, said Bradley Smith, director of launch services at NASA Headquarters, in a statement. “With this new tool in our toolbox, these tremendously flexible contracts will meet a wide variety of NASA science and technology needs.”
Six of the 12 businesses have successfully launched satellites into orbit: Astra, Northrop Grumman, Rocket Lab, SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, and Virgin Orbit. ABL Space Systems, Blue Origin, Phantom Space, and Relativity are four businesses developing vehicles for inaugural launches in the next few years.
Two more people work as launch brokers. Many of the other VADR recipients use Spaceflight to schedule launches on a variety of vehicles. Through a subsidiary, SEOPS, L2 Solutions, commonly known as OmniTeq, provides rideshare services.
Firefly, which made its first orbital launch attempt with its Alpha rocket in September and had intended to launch its VCLS mission later this year, was noticeably absent from the winners. At the request of the federal government, Firefly delayed preparations for its next launch in December, while the company’s main stakeholder, Noosphere Venture Partners, divests its position at the request of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States. A corporate spokeswoman declined to comment on whether Firefly submitted a bid for the VADR programme.
Another VCLS awardee, Astra, is getting ready to launch that mission from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The business conducted a static-fire test of its Rocket 3.3 from Space Launch Complex 46 on Jan. 22, after which it stated it will announce a launch date for the mission after the Federal Aviation Administration granted it a launch licence.
In February 2021, NASA awarded Astra a contract for three launches of its Rocket 3 spacecraft to deliver a small constellation of Earth science satellites known as TROPICS. In 2020, Rocket Lab was awarded a NASA contract to launch CAPSTONE, a lunar smallsat.
VADR was created by NASA to make the procurement of such launches more efficient. Companies that win VADR contracts aren’t assured launches; instead, they’ll have to compete for individual task orders given by the agency, similar to how the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) programme works. The contracts are indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity awards with a maximum value of $300 million over five years across all contracts.