Table of Contents
- TROPICS overview
- Risk Classification for NASA Payloads
- Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS)
- VCLS Selects TROPICS' Launch Service Provider
- The End of the Story?
- Additional information for the curious
On February 23, 2021, Astra was awarded a $7.95 million launch services contract for the TROPICS mission. At that point in time, Astra had a 100% launch failure rate.
On June 12, 2022, two cubesats from the TROPICS mission were lost when their Astra launch vehicle failed. Before the launch, Astra had an overall 78% launch failure rate and a 50% failure rate on the Rocket 3.3 launch vehicle which was used for the launch.
How did the TROPICS cubesats end up on such an unproven launch vehicle?
The Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats (TROPICS) mission is a NASA constellation of six small satellites, 3U CubeSats, that will measure temperature, moisture profiles and precipitation in tropical systems e.g. hurricanes. This data will enable scientists to study the dynamic processes that occur in the inner core of the storm resulting in rapid formation and intensification.
The TROPICS mission started in 2016. It has a fixed budget of $30.2 million excluding launch cost.
TROPICS was classified as a “Class D” mission… and that is how the story begins.
Risk Classification for NASA Payloads
NASA assigns a risk classification to payloads which represents the “risk tolerance” of the payload (as defined in NPR 8705.4). There are four classifications – Class A, B, C, and D. Class A has the lowest risk tolerance and Class D has the highest risk tolerance. Class D signifies that the payload has “high risk tolerance” meaning that many possible mission failure mechanisms may exist.
Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS)
VCLS provides launch opportunities for NASA payloads and NASA sponsored payloads. To qualify for VCLS the payload must be a Class D payload or a “Do No Harm” payload.
As a Class D mission, TROPICS was qualified for the VCLS program.
VCLS Selects TROPICS' Launch Service Provider
The selection process started on July 31, 2020, when NASA posted a RFP for TROPICS launch services. The RFP required a launch service provider to deliver six cubesats to three different LEO orbital planes. The total payload mass, including all six cubesats payloads, margin, dispensers, and isolators, would be 56.04 kg or less. The launch service provider would be responsible for providing a launch vehicle system to transport the payloads into their operational orbits within a 120 day period. The provider would also be responsible for all required launch: planning, analysis, design, development, production, integration, and testing. Payment terms were tied to milestones completion; 25% of the contract payments are linked to successfully placing the cubesats in orbit.
Virgin Orbit and Momentus were both deemed non-compliant with the RFP. SpaceX bid Starship, however they were rejected because NASA did not expect that SpaceX would be able to meet the launch date required.
Astra's RFP response was assessed by NASA to be inferior to Rocket Lab relative to demonstrated experience and launch vehicle history. Astra also had technical risk associated with their proposal. They bid $7.95 million to launch all six payloads on three separate dedicated launches.
Rocket Lab's experience and launch vehicle history demonstrated that they could deliver the payloads to orbit on schedule with a high degree of confidence. Overall, they exceeded NASA's requirements. Rocket Lab's submitted price was not publicly disclosed, however they had previously won a different NASA contract at $6.9 million for a dedicated launch. So their bid was likely around $20.7 million.
On February 23, 2021, Astra was awarded a $7.95 million launch service contract for the TROPICS mission under the VCLS program. At that point in time, Astra had a 100% launch failure rate.
The first TROPICS launch occurred on June 12, 2022. Before the launch, Astra had an overall 78% launch failure rate and a 50% failure rate on the Rocket 3.3 launch vehicle to be used for the launch.
Unsurprisingly, the Astra launch vehicle failed to deliver the payload to orbit.
After the failed launch, Astra had an overall 80% launch failure rate and a 60% failure rate on the Rocket 3.3 launch vehicle.
The End of the Story?
NASA published a “TROPICS decision document” where the reasoning behind their decision is explained. The following paragraph taken from that decision document summarizes their decision well…
And that is the story about how the TROPICS cubesats ended up using a launch service provider with a 100% failure rate… they were the lowest bidder.
With two more Astra launches to go, this story is not over yet. The selection of Astra as the TROPICS launch service provider may end up costing NASA: over $40 million; the loss of six years of scientific research and development; the opportunity to advance the scientific understanding of tropical systems, and negative media coverage.
For Astra, this could be the beginning of the end of their story… check out this article The next 6 months may determine if Astra has a future or is relegated to the dustbin of history…
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Additional information for the curious
TROPICS milestones timeline
March 10, 2016
TROPICS selected for NASA program solicitation EVI–3.
May 29, 2020
Integration and launch of TROPICS Pathfinder RFQ issued.
July 31, 2020
TROPICS constellation launch services RFP issued.
February 23, 2021
TROPICS constellation launch services RFP contract awarded to Astra.
Astra had an overall 100% launch failure rate.
June 11, 2022
The day before the TROPICS-1 launch.
Astra had an overall 78% launch failure rate and a 50% failure rate on the Rocket 3.3 launch vehicle to be used.
June 12, 2022
TROPICS-1 launch failure
Astra now has an overall 80% launch failure rate and a 60% failure rate on the Rocket 3.3 launch vehicle.
Dates to be determined
Remaining two TROPICS launch schedules pending review of launch failure.