NASA Awards $200 Million Sounding Rocket Contract to Orbital ATK

Sounding rocket launch. (Credit: NASA)
Sounding rocket launch. (Credit: NASA)

WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — NASA has awarded the NASA Sounding Rocket Operations Contract III to Orbital ATK, Inc., in Greenbelt, Maryland, to support the agency’s Sounding Rockets Program.

The cost-plus-fixed-fee contract, with a technical performance incentive fee, has a one-year base period and four one-year options. The total contract value, including the option periods, is approximately $199.5 million.

Under this contract, Orbital ATK will manage and be responsible for providing all associated services and supplies for the Sounding Rockets Program, except those provided as government-furnished property. This includes the design, fabrication, integration and flight qualification testing of sub-orbital payloads, as well as the provision of launch vehicles, associated hardware and various activities associated with subsequent mission launch operations. The contractor will conduct an estimated 18 launches per year throughout the period of performance.

The work will be performed at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Virginia; White Sands Missile Range in White Sands, New Mexico; remote launch sites, including the Poker Flat Research Range in Fairbanks, Alaska and Andoya Rocket Range in Andenes, Norway; and mobile launch sites, including Reagan Test Site in Kwajalein Atoll, Republic of the Marshall Islands, and Woomera Test Range in Woomera, Australia.

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  • savuporo

    Thats a … huge chunk of change. Weird that there are so many aspiring new smallsat launchers, but a cool $200M is an easy win for ATK.

    Seriously, you can get a rocket startup funded at a healthy rate with just a vague _promise_ of landing such a contract

  • Aerospike

    Totally agree. With that amount of money you should get a lot more from companies like EXOS Aerospace, UP Aerospace, etc.

    And why is this a cost-plus contract? launching sounding rockets isn’t exactly cutting edge science with lots of unknowns that can’t be planned for ahead of time. Something like this really should be a fixed price contract.

  • dbooker

    Interesting. That is $50M per year and comes to $2.78 million per flight. What is the payload of these sounding? Just wondering if it would be cheaper to buy one Falcon 9 with one or more Sherpa multi satellite dispenser to launch payloads actually to orbit? If there is a payload that has to be returned then use a Dragon configured for science.

    For proving technology on sub-orbital flights on the cheap, how about Blue Origin?

  • It’s about “sounding rockets” to suborbital flights.

    But is very expensive this ATK rockets, indeed. Brazilian sounding rockets are much cheaper.

  • Hug Doug

    Sounding rockets typically carry a few small instruments per flight, and are mostly devoted to taking direct measurements of the upper atmosphere, which is difficult to study from orbit. Often they will carry small amounts of tracer agents (these are compounds that react strongly to the presence of oxygen, so that they glow) to release so that upper level winds can be observed. Observing electromagnetic interactions in the Ionosphere is also done. Other observations can also be made, of the Sun, of X-ray and Gamma rays and other particles that are blocked by our atmosphere on the ground. Testing or qualification of equipment that will eventually be put on satellites is also possible.

    To make a long story short, sounding rockets are used because these payloads do not need to go to orbit! Much of the research being done would be useless if put in orbit as the environment that is the object of study is the upper atmosphere. Flight-qualifying a cubesat would be much more expensive than having a battery-powered qualification unit of an instrument sent up on a sounding rocket, etc.

    Blue Origin might be a good option if it turns out to be cheaper than $3 million per flight, though that would limit a sounding flight to ~100 km, and some sounding rockets go up to 1600 km.

    I know that when you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail, but the Falcon 9 is not the only rocket in the world that is worth flying.

  • Larry J

    From the article: “Under this contract, Orbital ATK will manage and be responsible for providing all associated services and supplies for the Sounding Rockets Program, except those provided as government-furnished property. This includes the design, fabrication, integration and flight qualification testing of sub-orbital payloads, as well as the provision of launch vehicles, associated hardware and various activities associated with subsequent mission launch operations.”

    There’s more on this contract than just the rockets. “Design, fabrication, integration, and flight qualification testing of sub-orbital payloads” is a big part of this contract. In addition to the specific types of flights that Hug Doug described below that can only be done suborbitally, sounding rockets are often used to flight test payload technologies that aren’t mature enough to put on satellites. It’s a set below what the X-37 is said to be doing.

  • duheagle

    The contract runs a maximum of five years, so that would be $40 million per year, $2.22 million per flight for 18 flights. That doesn’t really change your basic point, though, that this seems a pretty steep tariff for sounding rockets, even allowing for all the service items covered. The Rocket Lab Electron, for instance, is orbit-capable and is less than $5 million per mission.

    As aerospike pointed out, there are other American firms capable of servicing this contract. It would have been sporting to put this out for bid. Spike is also correct that there seems no justification whatsoever for making this a cost-plus deal.

    As Sam86 notes, there are likely bargains to be had outside U.S. borders too. ITAR and security clearance issues might preclude a firm run by foreign nationals from conducting some of the missions, but a U.S.-based and staffed firm could certainly be set up to buy and import foreign-source sounding rockets to serve such a contract. I’m unaware of ITAR constituting any barrier to the import of foreign space technology.

    Five years hence, when this new contract is up, One or more U.S. firms repping foreign sounding rockets would be well-placed to compete with one another and with U.S.-based firms for the follow-on contract.

  • ThomasLMatula

    This is the way NASA has been doing suborbital research for decades, nothing new here. But it also one of the reasons I keep pointing to the potential of the SER markets for suborbital vehicles. But its hard to be in competition with “free” research flights being given to researchers by NASA.

    But if New Space advocates are serious about promoting suborbital markets this is a place to start, with NASA no longer doing this massive multiple year contract but bidding it out to the new suborbital firms.

  • ESMDHokie77

    It was put out for bid. NSROC 1 started in 99, NSROC 2 in ’10, and now 3.

    These payloads are 300kg up to 750kg and are unique to each set of instruments on each mission.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Unfortunately with the New Spacers so focused on space tourism they have been overlooking this opportunity since the 1990’s. Imagine how many firms that went under chasing suborbital tourism when they could have been serving this existing market instead.

  • ESMDHokie77

    people said the same thing in 2010 when NSROC 2 was awarded. Smallsats could not do the same things Sounding Rockets can.

  • ThomasLMatula

    UP Aerospace also has the ability and has done a number of launches.

  • ESMDHokie77

    What size of payloads does UP deliver to suborbital trajectories?