Rocket Lab gets launch contract for lunar cubesat

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Capitalism in space: NASA has awarded Rocket Lab the contract to launch the privately-built, for NASA, lunar orbiting cubesat CAPSTONE, designed to test technologies and the orbital mechanics required to build its Gateway lunar space station.

This quote says it all:

The firm-fixed-price launch contract is valued at $9.95 million. In September, NASA awarded a $13.7 million contract to Advanced Space of Boulder, Colorado, to develop and operate the CubeSat.

Using two different private companies, one to build the satellite and the other to launch it, NASA will get a lunar orbiter for just over $23 million. That total equals the rounding error for almost all NASA-built projects.

The launch is set for early 2021.



  • Eric

    Isn’t 10 mil more than double what rocket lab charges for commercial launches?

  • Eric: I’d have to do some digging (can’t now, about to go out) but assuming you are right I think the reason for the higher price is need to get to lunar orbit. Requires an extra upper booster.

  • Fred Kleindenst

    That’s very good news. Spacecraft and launches have been astronomically expense for far too long. It’s taken until 2020 (despite Falcon9 fly for the last 5 years) for prices to start to drop significant *for NASA projects*. IPXE and your example above is the evidence.

    It’s time for NASA to structure it’s spacecraft acquisition and funding programs to utilize these price points and costs.

  • Edward

    Rocket Lab’s website talks a little about an upper stage that is able to take payloads beyond low Earth orbit (LEO), which is what their previous launches did, to Lunar orbit.

    Rocket Lab will combine its Electron launch vehicle, Photon small spacecraft platform, and a dedicated bulk maneuver stage to accomplish extended-range missions and deliver small spacecraft to lunar flyby, Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit (NRHO), L1/L2 points, or Lunar orbit.

    It would seem that this upper stage is at least part of the cost that is beyond the usual LEO launch price.

    As companies, countries, and national space programs, such as NASA, take lower launch costs into account, they realize that they are able to afford missions that they previously could not perform. BulgariaSat 1 is a good example.

    “People don’t realize that, for small countries and small companies like us, without SpaceX, there was no way we would ever be able to even think about space,” Zayakov [CEO of BulgariaSat] said.

    SpaceX brought about a major change in the way people think about access to space. This is one reason why so many people are such fans of the company. SpaceX is bringing about a revolution that makes possible the dreams of the 1950s, the ideas of the 1960s, and the plans of the 1970s. When the Space Shuttle failed to make access to space cheap and easy, all those dreams, ideas, and plans crashed and burned.

    This past decade, the reduced cost to launch, both by SpaceX and as proposed by Blue Origin, has turned those dreams into a different set of ideas, ideas that take the reduced costs into account. Plans are being made to turn those ideas into reality during the next decade or so.

    So far, for manned exploration beyond LEO, NASA is still counting more on the future SLS than it is on the current Falcon rockets, the future BFR class of rockets, the future New Glenn rocket, or the future Vulcan rocket. I would say that NASA is wisely relying upon existing rockets over future rockets, but SLS is still under development, and it has been slipping badly over the past few years, so the wisdom of relying upon it is questionable.

  • Just curious when we’ll start talking about ‘boosters’ rather than ‘rockets’?

  • Edward

    Blair Ivey,
    There are times when I get more technical than when I wrote that post. Often the industry will specify a rocket that takes a payload to orbit as a launch vehicle, but that can be a little bit of a mouthful, even when reading, so the word “rocket” just came to my mind naturally. A booster would more accurately describe many first stages and all solid rocket strap-ons, because launching from Earth requires a lot of oomph to get off the pad, and Earth-launched boosters tend to have more thrust than efficiency. The word rocket is nice, short, and generic, but it can also describe an attitude control thruster.

    On the other hand, I may have been thinking too technically, at the time I wrote that post. Notice that I did not call SLS a rocket. This is because it is a system rather than a rocket. I even pondered placing the BFR class of launch vehicles within the Falcon family, the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles.

    It is hard to imagine how I could have overthought and underthought a single paragraph, but it looks like I managed to do it.

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