Main Engine Cut Off

DARPA Signs Several Contracts for Blackjack, OPIR Included

Way back in April, DAPRA selected Lockheed Martin for satellite integration of the Blackjack program. The goal is to build and launch a small satellite constellation within just a few years.

Just a few weeks ago, more contracts were signed, bringing the total to just over $70 million spread around several companies. Blue Canyon Technologies will be supplying satellite buses, and SA Photonics will be supplying optical communications terminals.

Most interesting is the contract Raytheon won for $37 million, under which they will supply Overhead Persistent Infrared payloads—the same type of payloads they’re supplying for the Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared missile warning satellites.

Relativity Expanding to Vandenberg, Signs Iridium to Multi-Launch Contract

Relativity announced that they have signed a Right of Entry Agreement with the Air Force to develop a launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base, where they could fly missions to polar, Sun-synchronous, and other high-inclination orbits. That’s really important for Relativity’s business model, because combined with their launch site at Cape Canaveral—Launch Complex 16—they could sell missions to any orbit desired.

The agreement isn’t a “Come on in and build!” agreement, though. They still have to complete environmental assessments and a ton of other paperwork. In California, and within Vandenberg Air Force Base specifically, that could drag on forever and potentially be fatal to the plans. That’s made worse by the fact that the area they have access to—south of both SLC-6 (Delta IV Heavy) and SLC-8 (Minotaur)—has been a really tough spot to build on in the past.

I was wrong on my bet that Relativity would get SLC-3W. I’m running out of names to take over SLC-3W, but it is really close to SLC-3E where Atlas V and soon Vulcan fly from, so that might make it a tough spot for anyone to settle in.

The dearth of launch sites at Vandenberg could be a major area of focus of the upcoming Phase 2 awards for the National Security Space Launch program. Blue Origin’s New Glenn and Northrop Grumman’s OmegA would need a launch site if chosen, so that will be something to watch.

In other good news for Relativity, they also announced that they’ve signed Iridium to a multi-launch contract to put up Iridium’s spare satellites between 2023 and 2030. Iridium has 6 spare satellites that they kept on the ground to hedge against any issues that might have cropped up during their launch campaign with SpaceX.

Everything went perfectly with that campaign, though, so Iridium wants each of the 6 spare satellites to be put into a different plane of their constellation. Relativity’s Terran 1 turns out to be a perfect size and price for that job.

Relativity now has a hell of a backlog, plenty of facilities, and the holy grail that is both an east and west coast launch site, if they can successfully build one at Vandenberg.

I honestly wouldn’t bet on the latter, but not because of Relativity’s ability to execute.

Satellite Bonanza: Ten GEO Satellites Ordered in Prep for C-Band Clearing, More Coming

Intelsat ordered four from Maxar and two from Northrop Grumman, while SES ordered two each from Boeing and Northrop Grumman with two more yet to be announced. This is huge for satellite manufacturers who have been hurting in recent years after a dip in orders.

This is all in preparation for clearing C-band spectrum that has been reallocated towards 5G deployment in the US and will be auctioned off late this year. There was a hearing in the Senate earlier this week that had some fairly contentious clashes over the incentive payments for these satellite operators to clear spectrum by December 2023, two years before the date required.

In addition to an incentive, those payments are meant to cover purchasing new satellites required to transfer existing customers off of the reallocated spectrum. These order announcements sure seem to be timed to be fodder for that hearing, where everyone knew things would get heated. It’s helpful for those in support of the incentive payments—both satellite operators and the FCC itself—to be able to point to so many orders going to US companies for new satellites.

The news of the orders is probably music to the ears of SpaceX and Arianespace alike, who have seen a dip in launch contracts of this sort. Arianespace has very few commercial launches ordered for Ariane 6, and SpaceX’s 2020 manifest has been dominated by Starlink flights with the occasional NASA mission interspersed. SpaceX certainly has plenty on their manifest, but the additional contracts would be welcomed with open arms.

Spaceflight Signs Multi-Launch Agreement with SpaceX, Two BlackSky Satellites Up Next

Spaceflight Inc., the leading satellite rideshare and mission management provider, today announced it inked an agreement with SpaceX to secure rideshare capacity on multiple launches. This agreement between the two companies secures Spaceflight capacity to launch manifest payloads on several SpaceX launches through the end of 2021, providing launch schedule assurance to smallsat customers needing frequent, reliable, and cost-effective launches to Sun-synchronous orbit.

It was never a question that Spaceflight would be interested in the SpaceX rideshare program. It’s a perfect match—inexpensive slots offered by SpaceX which can be taken advantage of to sell the end-to-end services offered by Spaceflight at a solid margin. They’re also manifesting two BlackSky satellites on the next Starlink flight, just like we saw a few days ago with Planet flying SkySats on the previous flight.

The one bit of confusion I have here is that the press release for the multi-launch agreement only mentions Sun-synchronous orbits (SSO), which would mean this is for the dedicated rideshare flights SpaceX is offering about three times each year to SSO, and doesn’t actually cover any Starlink rideshares.

Relatedly, BlackSky satellites were only ever going to operate in SSO, but the upcoming Starlink launch is going to 53° assuming it’s just like all the others so far. That is decidedly not SSO, which is roughly 98° give or take a few tenths of a degree based on altitude.

Getting from 53° all the way to SSO is ridiculously expensive so there’s no way BlackSky satellites can fly themselves there. Either BlackSky is altering plans and will have multiple inclinations in their constellation of 60 satellites, or they really like the incredibly low launch price of a Starlink rideshare, or both. An inclination around 53° still covers a ton of locations on Earth that would be of interest to BlackSky imaging customers, although the revisit times are drastically different.

Space and Missile Systems Center Planning to Buy Two Rideshare Flights Each from Six Small Launchers

The Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC), Contract Office (PKT), Kirtland AFB, NM intends to award six (6) sole source contract to small launch service providers, as directed by the Industrial Base Council (IBC), in support of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act-directed Defense Production Act (DPA) Title III Funding effort to ensure the timely availability of industrial resources and critical technology items that are essential for national defense.

The scope of each contract will be to procure 2 commercial rideshare launches with Government payloads. Each contract will have a period of performance of 24 months, with launch dates determined by the commercial customer payload schedule of each provider.

Still a long way to go on this, but this has been part of the work the Space Acquisition Council has been doing to try and stabilize small launch providers through the economic instability of recent months. They’re purchasing two rideshare launches from each of the following: AevumAstraX-BOWRocket LabSpace VectorVOX Space (Virgin Orbit).

Buying rideshare launches means there is capacity left on these rockets to be sold off to other customers, as well. All considered, with a final contract amount likely coming in higher than a typical commercially-available ride for these launchers (as we typically see with government launches), plus the ability to sell leftover capacity, it’s a really nice way to bridge the tough time for these companies that the Department of Defense wants to rely on in the future or relies on already.

The makeup of this list is quite interesting to consider. It definitely makes sense to have providers included that are close to operations, like Virgin Orbit and Astra. But I’m wondering about the inclusion of companies that have plenty of funding and flights manifested already, like Rocket Lab, and about the absence of promising-yet-still-somewhat-mysterious companies like ABL and Firefly.

Kathy Lueders Named Head of Human Spaceflight at NASA

After the bizarre departure of Doug Loverro and the epic triumph of SpaceX DM-2, this news makes perfect sense and I, like damn near everyone who follows space, am thrilled to see it.

Lueders has been the manager of the Commercial Crew Program since 2014, and has been a calm and steady voice from NASA on the program all along. She gets to take all of her experience and lessons learned from Commercial Crew and apply that to all of NASA’s human spaceflight goals.

The biggest chunk of that work will be Artemis. Almost every single piece of the Artemis architecture—the only holdouts being the long-standing and staggeringly large SLS and Orion programs—is being developed and acquired in a style inspired by Commercial Cargo and Crew, which Lueders has been so influential on and familiar with.

That includes both Gateway modules already contracted, Gateway Logistics Services provided by SpaceX, the all-important Human Landing System vehicles, and it certainly feels like just a matter of time until we see the complementary crew program to pair with the cargo provided by Gateway Logistics Services.

So yes, she is precisely the right woman to lead this work, and it states loud and clear which direction NASA is headed in the future. Importantly, while the NASA Administrator is nominated by the President and, in the recent era, changes out with each new administration, the directorate heads usually have much more longevity.

Before the Loverro side quest, our beloved Bill Gerstenmaier filled this role from 2005 to 2019. That’s 3 Presidential administrations that were not exactly the most friendly nor did they agree much on NASA policy and direction, and yet Gerstenmaier was there the whole time.

Northrop Grumman Awarded $187 Million for Gateway Habitat Through Preliminary Design Review

We’ve known since July that Northrop Grumman would be building a Cygnus-derived habitat—the Habitation and Logistics Outpost, or HALO—for the Gateway, but that’s as much detail as we were given. The announcement of this contract award comes after two important Artemis updates: the initial human lander contracts were awarded at the end of April, and in early May it was quietly communicated that the first two Gateway elements would be integrated on the ground and launched together.

Importantly, this contract is only for work through 2020, culminating with Preliminary Design Review. That means there is going to be an additional contract or two for the development, launch, and checkout of the vehicle. This differs slightly from the contract for the first Gateway element, the Power and Propulsion Element (or PPE1), which was awarded to Maxar with a total value and structure specified—$375 million over a 12-month base period plus options beyond that.

The PPE was also planned to be owned by Maxar all the way through launch and lunar orbit operations, at which point it would be turned over to NASA if all went well. I wonder how that plan changes now that it will be integrated and launched with HALO.

NASA might be wondering the same, which could explain why this award was only for design work through Preliminary Design Review. But more realistically, the decision to structure the contract this way was likely a combination of reasons.

In the intense push for a 2024 landing on the Moon, NASA has been putting every penny possible towards the Human Landing System contracts, and that even included taking Gateway off the critical path for the first landing, which has obvious near-term cost savings.

Then the decision to combine the PPE and HALO into one vehicle and launch them together provided additional savings beyond that—it removes the need for an additional launch contract, removes significant complexity by only building one vehicle with guidance and navigation systems, and there is no need for rendezvous and docking systems since the vehicle will only ever be a docking target and not an active participant in docking.

Once all those changes and decisions were made, it seems as if NASA wanted to see how Human Landing System contracts shook out. Whatever money they had left over in the 2020 Gateway budget was then sent Northrop Grumman’s way. And with that, NASA has done all the budget work they can in 2020 for Artemis and Gateway.

Thus begins the battle for the 2021 budget, and that path leads directly through a pandemic-caused economic crash, a massive justice movement, and a Presidential election.

Pressure makes diamonds, or so NASA hopes.

  1. In the age of COVID, NASA really needs a new acronym for the Power and Propulsion Element. ↩︎

Astroscale Acquires Space Drones, Will Integrate and Launch from US

Sandra Erwin, for SpaceNews:

Effective Space Solutions, located in Israel, developed a satellite servicing vehicle known as Space Drone which is not yet in operation. Astroscale is acquiring the intellectual property associated with Space Drone and is hiring engineers and executives from the program.

The Space Drone will evolve into an Astroscale servicing platform, Ron Lopez, president and managing director of Astroscale U.S., told SpaceNews.

“It will be a new program and will be called something else,” he said. “We will integrate the payload in the United States and deliver that service from the U.S.”

This feels like a natural extension for Astroscale, who until now has been focused on satellite end-of-life and debris removal services.

By standing up a US subsidiary, it allows Astroscale to directly compete with Northrop Grumman’s Mission Extension Vehicles and makes things a bit easier to manage and provide services to US government or private assets.

The acquisition still needs to close, but assuming it does, I wonder what this does to the two Space Drones that were due to launch as secondary payloads on a Proton later this year:

Effective Space will use the Space Drones to perform life extension services for a customer’s two satellites. That unnamed customer is paying around $100 million for multi-year life extension.

Off-Nominal Origins: Jim Bridenstine

Huge news today! NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine joined Jake and I for the first episode of Off-Nominal Origins. We talked about how he got interested in space and aviation, his time at Rice University, his years as a Navy pilot, his continuing fascination with the Rocket Racing League, and a whole lot more.

And yes, obviously, we talked about the time Jake and I started a weird little sideshow at IAC 2019 with The Jim Bridenstine Fan Club.

Head over to to listen to the show now, or find Off-Nominal in your podcast player of choice!