SpaceX’s Falcon family of rockets continues to dominate the US launch market and most recently signed its third consecutive NASA launch contract this year.
On September 25th, NASA announced that it had placed an order with SpaceX to launch its IMAP (Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe) mission and several ride-sharing opportunities. For US $ 109.4 million, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will launch the spacecraft (of unknown mass) at the earliest (NET) in October 2024 from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) to the L1 Lagrange point on Earth.
IMAP is the third consecutive launch contract that NASA has awarded SpaceX. At the beginning of February 2020, the space agency SpaceX placed an order worth USD 80.4 million for the start of the PACE mission (plankton, aerosol, cloud, ocean ecosystem) on Falcon 9 in December 2022. At the end of February, the space agency again decided on SpaceX and signed I have a contract for 117 USD to launch the spacecraft Psyche in July 2022 with a rocket from Falcon Heavy
In total, NASA has awarded SpaceX – and SpaceX alone – three launch orders worth a total of $ 307 million in the past seven months. The last NASA launch contract win from competitor United Launch Alliance (ULA) came in December 2019 when the space agency granted the company $ 165.7 million to launch the GOES-T climate satellite in December 2021 with an Atlas V 541 rocket. On average, every single SpaceX contract saves NASA at least $ 50 million on startup costs alone.
Before SpaceX broke the ULA monopoly on US launch services, the company charged NASA $ 230 million to launch similar GOES-R and GOES-S satellites on Atlas V 541 rockets, meaning the reintroduction of the Competitors can save around 40% and ULAs have their own prices.
Oddly enough, NASA’s IMAP Falcon 9 launch contract is extremely expensive compared to most other NASA Falcon 9 missions, including PACE. At $ 109.4 million, IMAP’s only Falcon 9 contract costs just $ 6.6 million – 5.6% – less than Psyche’s Falcon Heavy launch contract.
At the moment, little to nothing is known about the bulk of the IMAP or their ~ 4 ridesharing opportunities. NASA’s own launch computer suggests that a Falcon 9 with Booster Recovery for drone ships up to ~ 3400 kg (7500 lb) can launch to the Lagrange 1 point, a kind of gravitational vortex attached between the earth and the sun. While it is possible that SpaceX could simply be more economical and invest a little less money to cut the cost of accessing space, IMAP’s contract price strongly implies that the Falcon 9 mission will be dispensable.
Read the Teslarati newsletters For quick updates, on-site perspectives and unique insights into SpaceX’s rocket launch and recovery processes.