NASA seeks to buy a dedicated nanosatellite launch

After abandoning plans for a prize competition to develop a nanosatellite launch vehicle, NASA is making another attempt to stimulate development of such a launch system by offering to buy a launch—just one—from such a system.

NASA issued a request for proposals (RFP) on Wednesday, August 7, for the NASA Launch Services (NLS) Enabling eXploration & Technology, or NEXT, program. The RFP is seeking to purchase one launch that will be able to place a minimum of 15 kilograms of satellites—about three “3U” CubeSats—into orbit at an altitude of at least 425 kilometers and in any orbital inclination between 0 and 98 degrees. That launch would take place no later than December 15, 2016. NEXT is reserved for small businesses, defined here as having no more than 1,000 employees.

“It’s that point in time where we need to start looking at this,” Garrett Skrobot of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center said in regards to a dedicated nanosatellite launch vehicle in a presentation Sunday at a CubeSat workshop at Utah State University in Logan, Utah. Unlike other NLS contracts, this vehicle won’t need to have a successful flight before being selected. “We’re looking at a high risk tolerance approach. The first one may go into the ocean. It’s high risk, and we’re going to go in knowing this.”

This new RFP represents a shift in strategy by NASA in promoting the development of very small launch vehicles designed for nanosatellites and CubeSats. Last November, NASA quietly canceled a Centennial Challenges prize competition for the development of a nanosatellite launcher, concluding that none of the ongoing development efforts beyond those already with government contracts could meet the competition’s goals in the next three to five years.

The NEXT approach has some people in the industry scratching their heads, wondering how effective a contract for single launch would be in promoting the development of such vehicles; it alone would do little to close the business case for those vehicle developers. John Olds, CEO of nanosatellite launch vehicle company Generation Orbit, argued in a blog post Saturday that NASA should follow an approach like it did for the development of commercial cargo and crew systems under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) and Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) programs, using funded Space Act Agreements to help support development of those spacecraft and launch vehicles. “A similar fixed-price approach, with progress-based milestone payments, might also work for 2 or 3 competitors in the small satellite launch arena,” he wrote, adding that it would be preferable to a prize. “A COTS-style program might be a more appropriate approach and the NASA investment at this level of payload would be modest — easily less than 1% of what they’ve spent on COTS and CCDev.”

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