A proposal from SpaceX, which appeared to propose a vehicle besides its present Falcon 9 or the Falcon Heavy, was submitted to a NASA contest to deploy a constellation of cubesats. The source specification statement for the Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation Structure and Storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats (TROPICS) flight, a collection of six cubesats to be deployed into 3 orbital planes in the year 2022 to research tropical weather systems, was published by NASA on March 11. Astra was given a $7.95 million contract by NASA for the deployment on February 26.
According to the statement, the organization received 5 proposals for the venture in August of last year. Aside from Astra, Rocket Lab, as well as Virgin Orbit, 2 other small launch vehicle firms submitted offers. Momentus, which provides in-space transportation infrastructure for satellites deployed on rideshare missions, was the fourth. SpaceX, which has a smallsat rideshare service that bundles groups of cubesats as well as other small satellites on Falcon 9 missions, was the fifth bidder. However, the organization did not tend to provide launch services for TROPICS competition under that system.
NASA found a flaw in SpaceX’s proposal as its firm “did not explicitly demonstrate improvement toward the resolution of the environmental impact study, that results in threat associated with securing an FAA launch permit, raising the possibility of complications that would impact contract performance,” according to its evaluation of the bidders.
The source acquisition statement also pointed out a major flaw in the mission’s “threat to launch strategy,” noting that the organization had not modified a structured, detailed plan in its proposed plan. “As a result, depending on the necessary launch date as well as the current status of the potential launch vehicle, there is considerable risk in the suggested launch strategy, which raises the probability of contract failure.”
Neither of these criticisms tends to refer to SpaceX’s latest Falcon 9 as well as Falcon Heavy vehicles. The Federal Aviation Administration issued launch licenses to both vehicles in 2020 July, after updating an environmental review for deployments from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station as well as Kennedy Space Center. SpaceX has secured a number of deals for larger NASA flights to be launched using those vehicles.
SpaceX should have rather offered its Starship spacecraft, which is still in production. Only for its current sequence of suborbital flight tests does the vehicle have an FAA launch license. The FAA is also conducting an environmental review of SpaceX’s Boca Chica, Texas, facility in preparation for orbital launches. The agency recently released a “scoping summary paper” detailing public input received during the assessment’s scoping period, but no deadline for the publication of a draft form of the environmental impact study has been set.