Main Engine Cut Off

Astra, Relativity, and Firefly Win NASA Venture Class Launch Services Contracts

A predictable but welcome announcement from NASA. There are two mission types for these contracts: 30 kilograms of payload to a 500-kilometer mid-inclination orbit, and a more complex flight to put 75 kilograms of payload into a 550-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit, and then a plane change of at least 10 degrees followed by the deployment of an additional 20 kilograms of payload.

Astra won a $3.9 million contract for the mid-inclination option, Firefly won $9.8 million for the option with the plane change, and Relativity won $3 million for their mission, though they haven’t said which option it is yet.

Considering those prices, that’s definitely a dedicated flight for Astra, either a discounted dedicated flight or a rideshare with just a few extra customers for Firefly, and a rideshare of some sort for Relativity.

All of these launches are required to occur by the end of June, 2022. Though “required” is maybe not the right word there, because the first VCLS round had a requirement to launch by April, 2018. What was then called Firefly Space Systems failed and lost its contract, Virgin Orbit is working on flying their mission soon, and the only winner to fly their mission is Rocket Lab, but they flew it in December, 2018.

But the important thing here is that these NASA contracts are for flights where NASA is fine with more risk, as evidenced by NASA allowing their payloads on Virgin Orbit’s second launch attempt, especially after the first failed so early into its flight.

In NASA’s own words:

These VCLS Demo 2 launches of small satellites can tolerate a higher level of risk than larger missions and will demonstrate – and help mitigate – risks associated with the use of new launch vehicles providing access to space for future small spacecraft and missions.

When I said predictable up top, I said that because these three launch providers will be of great interest to NASA if and when they get flying regularly. NASA would like to not only help provide payloads and incentive to get them flying, but to also have a foot in the door early to start understanding their work, their capabilities, and maybe a bit of what’s going on behind the scenes at these companies.

I’ll be curious to hear what is up with Firefly on that front. I don’t think they’re totally out of the woods yet on whatever the hell is going on with Max Polyakov and Mark Watt. I notice that within the last two months, they have been removed from Firefly’s about page. The entire “The Team” section is empty, though the title is still there. The Wayback Machine shows it as it was back in October. Keep an eye on that situation.