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NASA Awards Nearly $500 Million in Commercial Launch Contracts

By | July 17, 2012

      [Satellite News 07-17-12] The Kennedy Space Center-based NASA Launch Services Program issued four contracts to two commercial launch entities July 17 as the agency prepares to ramp up its space program and catch up to its international contemporaries through the next four years. SpaceX will launch its first U.S. government science satellite on a Falcon 9 rocket and United Launch Alliance (ULA) will send three more missions into orbit onboard its workhorse Delta 2 vehicle. Both companies will launch NASA missions from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California between 2014 and 2016.            
         SpaceX was issued an $82 million contract to launch the Jason-3 satellite for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and its international partners. Jason-3 is an operational ocean altimetry mission designed to measure sea surface height, ocean circulation and sea level. The program was co-developed and will be operated by an international coalition led by NOAA that includes the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites, NASA and the French space agency, CNES. “The Jason-3 satellite will be used in ocean and weather forecasting, ocean wave modeling, as well as the study of global climate change and other climate phenomena,” NASA said in a statement.
         NASA also granted SpaceX additional funding under its commercial crew development (CCDev) and commercial orbital transportation service (COTS) programs to resupply the International Space Station (ISS) with crew and cargo. In May, SpaceX became the first company to successfully dock a privately owned and operated cargo vehicle, Dragon, with the ISS and return it to Earth. The company hopes its new contracted Falcon 9 mission qualifies its services for additional U.S. government launches.            
         ULA, however, inked three launch contracts with NASA worth a combined $412 million for missions on its Delta 2 rocket, which was believed to have been retired after its previous launch last September.            
         ULA will launch the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP), which will provide global measurements of soil moisture and its freeze-thaw state, as well as the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) and the Joint Polar Satellite System-1 (JPSS-1) weather forecasting platform.            
         In a statement, ULA President and CEO Michael Gass said his company had produced components for five more Delta 2 vehicles that were suited for payloads launched from California and that NASA added the Delta 2 to its list of potential after they had been excluded in 2010. “While we count success one mission at a time, we have been able to count on the Delta 2’s success 97 times in a row over the last decade,” said Gass. “This is a tribute to our dedicated ULA employees, our supplier teammates and our NASA Launch Services Program customer who ensure mission success is the focus of each and every launch.”
         OCO-2, which aims to study global measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide, is the successor to a satellite that failed to reach orbit when the payload fairing on its Orbital Sciences-built Taurus XL rocket did not jettison properly in February 2009. JPSS-1 is the successor to the Suomi-National Polar Partnership (NPP) spacecraft, which was launched in October 2011 as a joint mission between NASA and NOAA, and will be operated by the JPSS Program. The JPSS Program is the former National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) Program.          
         Separately, ATK announced it successfully completed its last Liberty space transportation system milestone under its unfunded Space Act Agreement (SAA) with NASA for its CCDev-2 program. ATK said the final milestone under the SAA was a Program Status Review (PSR) for the Liberty system. The company’s Liberty launch team presented NASA with detailed progress of the program, including integrated master schedule, DAC cycle status, system requirements, software status, flight test plan, system safety review, ground processing certification plan and schedule for initial operation capability.
         ATK Liberty Program Manager and Vice President Kent Rominger said the CCDev-2 Liberty SAA enabled NASA and the Liberty team to share technical information related to the Liberty transportation system during the preliminary design review phase of the program.            
         “It has been a privilege working with NASA to complete the SAA for the commercial crew program,” said Rominger. “The feedback we received from the NASA Liberty team has helped further the development of the entire system and we believe ensures the program is on target for Liberty to provide a capable and safe commercial transportation to the ISS by mid-decade.”            
         ATK’s schedule for Liberty includes unmanned test flights in 2014 and 2015, followed by the first crewed flight in late 2015 with Liberty astronauts. The company said its commercial operational flights to take NASA astronauts to the ISS would begin in 2016. To date, ATK has completed five milestones and held three technical interchange meetings on internal funding. “Our supply base is critical to Liberty’s success as we move quickly through development of the entire system,” said Rominger. “As a commercial program we need to ensure we are a strong team in order to provide the best service and grow a profitable business.”

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