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ALASA illustration
Government small launch vehicle development efforts, like DARPA's ALASA (above), played a role in NASA’s decision to cancel a nanosatellite launch vehicle competition. (credit: DARPA)

A prize competition fails to launch

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One of the biggest obstacles to greater use of small satellites has been getting them into space. Existing small launch vehicles have been too expensive to attract much demand from government, commercial, or academic customers, and in many cases are still oversized to effectively serve the growing interest in nanosatellites and even smaller CubeSats. Secondary payload opportunities, often called rideshares, have increased in recent years. These offer more affordable ways to get to space than dedicated launchers, but offer little flexibility in schedules or orbits for the hitchhiking smallsats (see “New opportunities for smallsat launches”, The Space Review, August 22, 2011).

“The existence of the SWORDS and ALASA projects may have contributed to this NASA decision to end the Challenge,” Luney wrote, referring to two government launch vehicle efforts.

One solution that had the potential to provide low-cost dedicated launches of the very smallest smallsats was the Nano-Satellite Launch Challenge, a prize competition that was part of NASA’s Centennial Challenges prize program. Announced in July 2010, the competition offered $2 million (later increased to $3 million) in prizes to vehicles that could launch CubeSats. To win the $1.5-million first prize, a team had to be the first to launch a “1U” CubeSat—10 centimeters on a side and weighing 1 kilogram—that completed one orbit of the Earth, and then do it again within one week.

However, last week NASA quietly shut down the prize competition before even the final version of the prize rules had been approved. On Tuesday, November 27, Space Florida, the “allied organization” selected by NASA last November to run the competition, announced that it had been informed by NASA that the space agency was terminating the Space Act Agreement to run the competition. The letter, dated November 18 (oddly, a Sunday) and signed by NASA chief technologist Mason Peck, gave Space Florida 30 days’ notice of NASA’s intent to cancel the agreement. It did not, however, give a reason for the cancellation.

In his email to potential competitors, Percy Luney, the Space Florida vice president running the competition, speculated that two government-sponsored smallsat launch programs played a role in the competition’s cancellation. “The existence of the SWORDS and ALASA projects may have contributed to this NASA decision to end the Challenge,” Luney wrote.

SWORDS, the Soldier-Warfighter Operationally Responsive Deployer for Space, is a small launch vehicle under development by the US Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC) with industry partner KT Engineering. The goal of SWORDS is to develop a small launch vehicle, fueled by liquid methane and liquid oxygen, that can place up to 25 kilograms into low Earth orbit (LEO) for $1 million per launch. An orbital flight test of SWORDS is planned for 2014.

The Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) program is an effort by DARPA to develop an air-launch system for smallsats. The goal of ALASA is a system that can launch satellites weighing up to 45 kilograms (100 pounds) to LEO for $1 million per launch. In June, DARPA awarded contracts to Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Virgin Galactic to work on system concepts, while three other companies—Northrop Grumman, Space Information Laboratories, and Ventions—won contracts to work on various enabling technologies.

A NASA spokesman confirmed to The Space Review that that ALASA and SWORDS—or, rather, the perceived lack of an industrial base beyond the companies involved in those programs—played a role in the agency’s decision to cancel the competition. Dave Steitz said that the NASA Engineering and Safety Center (NESC) studied potential competitors for the competition. “The study identified more than 15 efforts under way,” he said, “and concluded that other than the teams selected for ALASA and SWORDS, the companies lacked experience in designing, developing, or operating launch vehicles and none of the companies seemed to be sufficiently capable of self-financing to deliver the target capability (at approximately $1 million per launch) in the next 3–5 years.”

Potential competitors, said NASA’s Steitz, “lacked experience in designing, developing, or operating launch vehicles and none of the companies seemed to be sufficiently capable of self-financing to deliver the target capability… in the next 3–5 years.”

NASA declined to release the NESC report, citing proprietary company data included in it. However, Steitz did provide the names of the 15 organizations it covers. They include the three companies with ALASA systems concepts contracts as well as SWORDS’s KT Engineering. Also included are several companies developing suborbital vehicles with an eye towards later orbital systems, including Armadillo Aerospace, Interorbital Systems, Whittinghill Aerospace, and XCOR Aerospace. The rest are a mix of companies that are working on, or have expressed an interest in, small launch vehicles: Exquadrum, Garvey Spacecraft Corporation, Microcosm, Rocketlab New Zealand, Space Propulsion Group, and Ventions. The study also included one largely government program: the Super Strypi vehicle proposed by the Operationally Response Space (ORS) Office and Sandia National Laboratory.

Another factor in NASA’s decision, said Steitz, was a request for information (RFI) about the competition released by NASA in August. The RFI sought information from both potential competitors in the challenge as well as prospective customers of the vehicles that would be developed for it. In the RFI, NASA suggested it was looking at alternative models for the competition, including one where the prize would go to the team that launched the most payloads of ten kilograms or less in one year, and another where the prize focused instead on the development of key launch vehicle components, such as avionics, instead of a full-fledged vehicle.

Steitz said the RFI responses, also not released by NASA, confirmed the NESC conclusion that there were not enough viable competitors for the competition. “Response to the request for information indicated a community that was not prepared to develop a complete launch system in response to the NSL [Nano-Satellite Launch] challenge,” he said.

Luney said last week that Space Florida neither had been involved in, nor was even aware of, the NESC study, but knew the RFI was holding up the competition. “Space Florida was aware that NASA was reevaluating the NanoSat Launch Challenge in light of the responses to the RFI,” he said. “NASA’s delay in approving the revised rules for the Challenge and the RFI indicated that there was a debate going on within NASA about the Challenge.”

While Luney expressed frustration with NASA’s decision and the lack of communication during the progress—they had no warning that NASA was thinking of cancelling the competition prior to receiving the formal notice—Steitz said NASA’s decision had nothing to do with Space Florida’s performance running the competition. “Space Florida has been an excellent partner during the formulation and study of the challenge,” Steitz said. “We hope to work with Space Florida in the future on other partnering opportunities.”

“If Space Florida has a new source of prize money for the competition, Space Florida will seriously consider a request to continue the competition,” Luney said.

NASA’s decision to cancel the Nano-Satellite Launch Challenge was met with dismay by many in the relatively small community of vehicle developers and rocketry enthusiasts, who had heard rumors for weeks that the competition was in jeopardy. Some took issue with NASA’s logic that there wasn’t a sufficient experience base in industry for the competition to succeed, noting that a previous NASA competition, the Lunar Lander Challenge (LLC), was a success even though industry had limited experience in building vertical takeoff and landing vehicles when the competition started.

Among those disappointed with NASA’s decision was one person whose organization not included in the NESC report. Paul Breed created Unreasonable Rocket several years ago to compete in the LLC, flying vehicles in the competition but missing out on the prize money. Recently he announced plans to try and develop a nanosat launcher, pitching the proposal at the NewSpace Business Plan competition during the NewSpace 2012 conference in July. In October, he posted his business plan on his website prior to an appearance on The Space Show.

In an email interview, Breed said he was surprised that NASA canceled the competition, which he thought, in its original form, was ideal. “For the initial set of rules I though the prize and rules were almost perfect,” he said.

Without the competition, Breed said he’s thinking of revising his plan for a nanosat launcher by going even smaller. “Now I’m thinking that it’s a 50-gram payload where the main vehicle CPU runs the show. Maybe a simple low-res camera or maybe just a simple radio transponder,” he said.

In Luney’s initial message announcing the cancellation of the competition, he appeared to leave the door open to reviving it as a non-NASA affair. “Without the prize funds provided by NASA, Space Florida is unable go forward with the NanoSat Launch Challenge at this time. We are considering other options,” he wrote. He later confirmed that to be the case, if someone else provided the prize purse. “If Space Florida has a new source of prize money for the competition, Space Florida will seriously consider a request to continue the competition,” he said.

Steitz also said that NASA might develop a new nanosat launch competition down the road. NASA’s Space Technology Program, he said, “will continue to monitor and support the development of nanosat launchers and will revisit a NSL Challenge concept if needs and opportunities emerge.”