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March 08, 2011

FAA Seeks $5 Million in Prize Money for Low Cost Space Launches

By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) would like to get into the space prize award business, and will likely work with NASA and the Department of Defense on how to structure a program to hand out up to $5 million in prize money to encourage low cost access to space.  

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Several sources, including Space Politics and Space.com, reported on remarks made last week made by FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation George Nield down at the Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference in Orlando.   Neild said the FAA has requested $5 million for a "Low Cost Access To Space" (LCATA) prize in the president's 2012 budget request. 

The FAA's Office Space Transportation mission is "to encourage, facilitate, and promote U.S. commercial space transportation," says its website. Under its 2011 budget request, it wants to "provide a $5 million award designed to jump-start the creation of an entirely new market segment, with immediate benefits to private industry, NASA, the Department of Defense, and academia," according to the online document, which can be found here (page 144 of the PDF).

It is likely the prize will be awarded to the first firm that can launch a small payload weighing around 1 to 5 kilograms – in the range of NASA's CubeSat form factor and the US Army's SMDC-One communications relay satellite – at some to-be-defined low cost.   The Army Space and Missile Defense Command has a target goal of being able to quickly put up 20 pounds into low earth orbit at around $1 million, so I'd be willing to bet on that amount as being a nice round number the FAA and NASA might agree upon as a goal.

Currently, CubeSats and smaller sized "nanosats" under 100 pounds usually end up as rides of opportunity piggybacking on someone else's main launch, with an occasional dedicated flight organized by NASA or the U.S. Air Force to put a group of smaller satellites into orbit. The successful December SpaceX Falcon 9/Dragon demonstration flight had a whopping eight nanosatellites on board as paying customers while the failed Glory launch had a pair of NASA-sponsored nanosats it was to take to orbit.

Because nanosatellites are so small, they provide an affordable way for universities and even high schools (with a little help from NASA) to put experiments into orbit. In February, NASA announced it had selected 20 small satellites to fly as auxiliary cargo on board launches scheduled in 2011 and 2012 in its Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) program.

However, waiting around to hitch a ride on a space-available basis doesn't work for everyone, especially if experiments and missions need to go up on a time-critical basis.   A low-cost launcher for low-cost/low-mass satellites would open up more flight opportunities for researchers, a much desired capability for the U.S. Army, and potentially a booming market for commercial space entrepreneurs supplying launchers, nanosatellites, and the parts needed to build everything.


Doug Mohney is a contributing editor for TMCnet and a 20-year veteran of the ICT space. To read more of his articles, please visit columnist page.

Edited by Janice McDuffee