SpaceX to Launch CubeSats for NASA

NASA awarded SpaceX a task order to launch two CubeSat Launch Initiative missions as part of a Venture-class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare (VADR) launch services contract. The two missions will launch on Falcon 9 rockets.

The CubeSat Launch Initiative provides opportunities for universities, high schools, and educational nonprofit organizations such as museums and science centers to send small satellites into orbit at a low cost. Students, teachers, and faculty members can get hands-on experience with developing and deploying space-bound hardware. CubeSats have established themselves as a lower-cost method to conduct scientific research and technology demonstrations in Earth orbit.

NASA promotes the CubeSat Launch Initiative as a way to arrange low-cost launch services for payloads like CubeSats that can tolerate higher risk. Lower mission assurance standards make up part of the reduced costs besides using SpaceX’s reusable Falcon 9 first stage rockets. NASA also saves on overhead by providing less oversight than normal.

SpaceX was originally one of thirteen companies selected to provide launch services for the VADR program. NASA capped the money awarded for the fixed-price contracts at $300 million. It had not yet deterymined the number of launches it would assign to each company when it announced the VADR contracts. The satellite types to be launched for VADR range from CubeSats to Class D satellites.

SpaceX’s experience with launching small satellites include its frequent launches of Starlink satellites and its Transporter missions. The most recent Transporter mission, Transporter-8, launched 72 satellites that included NROL-87, NROL-85, SARah-1, SWOT, and four Starlink satellites. It landed a first stage booster for the 200th time. This was the ninth launch and landing for that booster. (SpaceX makes it look so easy these days that it’s easy to forget that the occasional booster has missed the barge in the past.) Transporter-8 launched from Vanderberg Space Force Base.

Prices for launching a small satellite on a Transporter mission starts at $275,000 and depends on the amount of mass to be launched. The lower cost for a “rideshare” mission makes it an attractive option for organizations with lower budgets that want to send a small satellite into space but do not want to wait for room on a rocket launching a larger payload. NASA’s choice of 13 companies to provide launch services for VADR indicates that SpaceX has competition for “rideshare” missions as more startups recognize the demand for low-cost satellite launch services.

Barely 14 hours before Transporter-8 launched, SpaceX launched 52 Starlink satellites. The Starlink launch went off from Cape Canaveral in Florida. Demand for SpaceX’s satellite Internet service continues to grow in areas that have been neglected when investing in Internet infrastructure. The Nebraska Farm Bureau recently signed a deal to provide two months of free Starlink service to members who have had trouble accessing reliable high-speed Internet, for instance.

NASA has not announced the payloads that will fly on the two CubeSat Launch Initiative missions it awarded to SpaceX yet. They will launch as early as 2025, possibly on a “previously flown” Falcon 9 booster that has already launched and landed several times.