Main Engine Cut Off

DARPA Launch Challenge Down to Three

Jeff Foust, for SpaceNews:

Three launch vehicle developers, one of which is still in stealth mode, have qualified to compete in a DARPA competition in early 2020 to demonstrate responsive launch capabilities.

In a briefing at the 35th Space Symposium here April 10, DARPA announced that Vector, Vox Space and a stealth-mode company have qualified to participate in the DARPA Launch Challenge. Vox Space is the U.S.-incorporated subsidiary of Virgin Orbit, which is developing the LauncherOne air-launch system.

The stealth company is rumored to be Astra, and that sounds right to me. I’m pretty confident they’re the other one in on RALI, as well.

I totally understand why Vector and Astra are interested in the DARPA Launch Challenge—they’re inexpensive rides for small payloads, they both seem to be targeting responsiveness, and they both need some launches on the books and under their belts to prove themselves.

But I can’t for the life of me figure out why Virgin Orbit is interested in participating. The prize money is substantially less than the price of one of their launches, and they have to fly two flights to win it all. They also have a substantial amount of launches signed and waiting, so I’m not sure they need this DARPA program to prove themselves out. What am I missing?