SpaceX Falcon rockets win third consecutive NASA launch contract

SpaceX has scheduled a third Starlink launch this month, a mission that could result in a new rocket reusability record for the company. (SpaceX)

SpaceX’s Falcon family of rockets continue to dominate the US launch market, most recently securing their third consecutive NASA launch contract this year.

On September 25th, NASA announced that it had awarded SpaceX a contract to launch its Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe (IMAP) mission and several rideshare payloads. For $109.4 million, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will launch the spacecraft (of unknown mass) to Earth’s L1 Lagrange point from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) no earlier than (NET) October 2024.

An artist’s conception of the IMAP spacecraft. (NASA)

IMAP is the third consecutive launch contract NASA has awarded to SpaceX. In early February 2020, the space agency awarded SpaceX an $80.4m contract to launch the PACE (Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem) mission on Falcon 9 in December 2022. In late February, the space agency again chose SpaceX, signing a $117m contract to launch the Psyche spacecraft on a Falcon Heavy rocket in July 2022.

NASA’s PACE spacecraft. (NASA)
NASA’s Psyche spacecraft. (NASA)

Altogether, in the last seven months, NASA has awarded SpaceX – and SpaceX alone – three launch contracts worth a total of $307 million. Competitor United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) last NASA launch contract win came in December 2019 when the space agency awarded the company $165.7 million to launch the GOES-T climate satellite in December 2021 on an Atlas V 541 rocket. On average, every single SpaceX contract saves NASA at least $50 million on launch costs alone.

Before SpaceX broke ULA’s monopoly on US launch services, the company actually charged NASA ~$230 million to launch similar GOES-R and GOES-S satellites on Atlas V 541 rockets, implying that the reintroduction of competition can and has cut around 40% off of ULA’s own prices.

Curiously, though, the price of NASA’s IMAP Falcon 9 launch contract is extremely high relative to most other NASA Falcon 9 missions, including PACE. At $109.4 million, IMAP’s lone Falcon 9 contract will cost just $6.6 million – 5.6% – less than Psyche’s Falcon Heavy launch contract.

At the moment, little to nothing is publicly known about the mass of IMAP or its ~4 rideshare passengers. NASA’s own launch calculator suggests that a Falcon 9 with drone ship booster recovery can launch up to ~3400 kg (7500 lb) to the Lagrange 1 point, a sort of gravitational eddy fixed between the Earth and Sun. While it’s possible that SpaceX is simply being savvier and putting a bit less money where its mouth is as far as lowering the cost of access to space goes, IMAP’s contract price strongly implies that the mission will be an expendable one for Falcon 9.

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Eric Ralph: I write about space, among other things.
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