Click the arrow to watch the media event. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.
NASA held a media event October 14 at Kennedy Space Center to announce the award of “Venture Class” launch services (VCLS; get used to the new acronym) contracts to three companies.
NASA opened a new avenue for exploration and technology development with awards to three companies to launch missions dedicated to CubeSats. The tiny, box-shaped spacecraft have emerged in the last 16 years as a quick, viable way to test components and techniques that, if proven, can be applied to much larger missions where the stakes are far greater than a simple, 4-inch cube. The price tag for each mission is one-tenth the cost of the least-expensive traditional launcher.
Proposals were accepted from Firefly Space Systems, RocketLabs USA and Virgin Galactic to conduct demonstration CubeSat launches as soon as 2017. The first phase of launches are expected to be completed by the end of calendar year 2018. The total value of the three contracts is $17.15 million, with $6.95 million awarded to Rocket Lab, $5.5 million to Firefly Space Systems and $4.7 million to Virgin Galactic. NASA officials anticipate more Venture Class launches to serve SmallSats in the future.
Firefly Space Systems and Rocket Lab are considered candidates to launch from KSC's newly christened Pad 39C. Within the footprint of the Pad 39B complex, 39C for now is little more than a concrete slab. NASA foresees an adaptable launch site that can service multiple vehicles and propellant systems.
UPDATE October 18, 2015 — Florida Today reports that Firefly “confirmed it would launch suborbital test flights of its small Alpha rocket next year from Kennedy Space Center's new pad 39C.”
Rocket Lab is looking for a U.S. site not only to launch its Electron rockets, but to build the rocket's Rutherford engines and to base the New Zealand company's U.S. headquarters.
“One of the reasons we're here for the entire week is to see if Florida is actually going to be the place for us to consolidate,” CEO Peter Beck told FLORIDA TODAY.
In the summer of 2014, Firing Room 4 of KSC's Launch Control Center was remodelled to add four private secure suites. It seems logical that Firefly and Rocket Lab might be potential tenants for these suites.
Firing Room 4 renovations in June 2014. Image source: SpaceKSC.com.
According to the press release, “Virgin Galactic expects to launch from its base at Mojave, California, but it has the ability to launch from anywhere in the world.”
In June 2015, NASA leased its former Space Shuttle runway to state agency Space Florida. If Virgin Galactic flies out of KSC, the use would be contracted through Space Florida.
LauncherOne would be carried into the air and was originally designed to drop from Virgin's WhiteKnightTwo carrier craft, the same one that will launch the company's SpaceShipTwo adventure tourism rocket plane. But the Virgin Galactic representative at the media event stated that a new upgraded LauncherOne will be lifted on “a commercial aircraft” that he would not name.
Although the adventure tourism gets most of the media attention — especially after the fatal test flight accident a year ago — the horizontal launch business might be more lucrative and reliable in the long run. According to a Virgin Galactic web page:
For a price below US $10 million, LauncherOne will now be able to launch 200 kg into the standard Sun-Synchronous Orbit most commonly desired by small satellite missions, a marked increase from the system’s originally projected performance to that orbit. Customers will also be able purchase even further increases in performance to the same orbit, as well as launches that reach other altitudes or inclinations.
SpaceShipTwo was originally designed by Paul Allen's Scaled Composites. That company is working a much larger horizontal launch vehicle called Stratolaunch. The Stratolaunch will carry under its wing a rocket built by Orbital ATK. According to an Orbital ATK fact sheet, Stratolaunch will have a payload capacity of 500,000 pounds, delivering 10,000 pounds (about 4,500 kg) to Low Earth Orbit.
Although it's not official, a Stratolaunch company official stated in 2012 that the former KSC shuttle runway is a potential launch site for their aircraft.
An undated 2014 Firefly Space Systems promotional film. Video source: PJ King Vimeo channel.
A July 2014 Rocket Lab USA video about its Electron rocket booster. Video source: Rocket Lab YouTube channel.
An October 24, 2015 Virgin Galactic film about its small satellite launch services. Video source: Virgin Galactic YouTube channel.