I was on a call earlier this week with US Air Force officials talking about the Rapid Agile Launch Initiative (RALI), which is the program handling the acquisition of new small launch vehicles.
Through the program, they’ve purchased 5 launches for 2019, spread over 3 launch providers and 21 satellites, all for a total of $25.6 million. The first of 5 is Rocket Lab’s next launch, and the only other provider they’ve announced is Virgin Orbit, for a launch at the end of 2019.
Let’s try and work the money side of things: the dedicated Rocket Lab flight comes in at just under $6 million, and a Virgin Orbit flight would be over $10 million if they bought the whole thing.
That really doesn’t leave much for the other 3 launches, so given the cost and the fact that they’re launching 21 satellites in 5 launches, my guess is the Virgin Orbit flight is a rideshare and they’ve only purchased some of the capacity.
If that guess is right, that’d leave $15 million for the last 3 launches, so I’ll throw my hat in the ring and bet on at least one other Rocket Lab flight, plus two flights from the third mystery launch provider (again because Virgin Orbit flights are too expensive to make this math work).
A few random things I picked up from the call. RALI handles everything from suborbital missions up to 8,000 pounds to orbit. That payload mass is the dividing line between small launch programs and the bigger National Security Space Launch program (think SpaceX, ULA, etc).
That means there is quite a bit of headroom for new providers, as most of the bigger small launch vehicles are in the range of 2,500 pounds (~1,000 kilograms) to orbit. Firefly Beta would be pretty close to, if not slightly over, that upper range of RALI.
Per my obsession of late about the dwindling supply of polar-accessible launch sites, I asked the Air Force officials on the call about the number of remaining available launch sites at Vandenberg. Disappointingly, they were all pretty stumped on that. I’m waiting on an email back with the answer, but I’m not too hopeful I’ll get it.
They were also not particularly open to discussing any expansion plans at Vandenberg, or up in Alaska, or out at Wallops, or to any sites beyond those, but did mention that their investment in the new payload facilities out at Wallops has been progressing well.
There was some talk about how the small launch program would handle the concept of assured access. Right now, given the oversupply of new launch providers, the US Air Force is planning to roll with the ebbs and flows of industry, and sign deals with any provider that might come along with the necessary capabilities. I could see that mindset shifting if and when the inevitable consolidation of providers happens, but time will tell.
It’s good to see the US Air Force (somewhat) openly discussing their plans for acquiring launches from the newer, smaller launch providers. They’re clearly excited to be able to take advantage of so much new capability at such a low cost. The irony of announcing the acquisition of 5 small launches for $25.6 million total while Pegasus struggles to get its issues sorted out is not lost on me. Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit, and others coming online in the next year or two will all but kill the usefulness of the old guard of small launch—Minotaur and Pegasus—and the Department of Defense is wasting no time hopping onboard.