NASA on Friday issued its final request for proposals (RFP) for what the civil space agency called the smallest class of launch services it has ever procured.

NASA plans to award one or possibly two firm-fixed-price Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS) contracts to accommodate 132 pounds of CubeSats in a single launch, or two launches carrying 66 pounds each, according to an agency statement. The launch provider will determine the launch location and date, but the launch must occur by April 15, 2018.

Photo: NASA.
Photo: NASA.

A draft RFP was released May 7 (Defense Daily, May 11). NASA spokesman George Diller said Monday said “almost (no)” changes were made from the draft RFP to the final RFP. He was unable to elaborate by press time.

VCLS is geared toward nanosatellites and science mission experiments using a class of rockets smaller than any currently available. At present, launch opportunities for small satellites and science missions are primarily limited to ride-share type arrangements, flying only when space is available on NASA and other launches. NASA said its Launch Services Program (LSP) seeks to develop alternatives to this approach and help foster other launch services dedicated to transporting smaller payloads into orbit.

Firefly Space Systems will respond to the RFP, company Vice President of Business Development Maureen Gannon said Monday. She said Firefly, of Austin, Texas, will offer its Alpha launch vehicle, which is a two-stage vehicle capable of carrying payloads weighing as much as 882 pounds. Gannon said Firefly is aiming for its first Alpha flight in 2017.

Other potential bidders include Orbital ATK [OA], Rocket Lab and Spaceflight Industries. Orbital ATK spokeswoman Jennifer Bowman declined comment. Although Rocket Lab is based in New Zealand, the company would be eligible to compete for the contract as the company is incorporated in the United States, Diller said. Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said through a spokeswoman that the company will “certainly respond” to the RFP.

“We are excited NASA recognizes the value of a small launcher,” Beck said. “Although the payload is a little on the light side for us, it doesn’t matter. This is recognition of the need for dedicated opportunities to orbit.”

Lockheed Martin [LMT] spokesman Gary Napier said Monday the company didn’t plan on responding to the RFP. Lockheed Martin has its Athena rocket, capable of launching payloads weighing between 615 pounds and 13,000 pounds, according to a company statement.

Diller said low earth orbit (LEO) will be the destination “based on customer requirements” for the first, or first two, VCLS missions. Though Diller did not respond when asked about the potential value of the VCLS contract or contracts, an idea could be drawn from Spaceflight Industries’ publicly listed prices for commercial launches. Spaceflight Industries, for missions to LEO, lists one launch of a 132-pound payload for $1.75 million and one 221-pound payload for nearly $4 million.