NASA, the American space agency, has long been a proponent of small satellites. NASA accepted and then encouraged and eventually used the growing number of commercial satellite launch firms in the United States. As part of that support NASA created the VADR (Venture-Class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare) program which awards launch contracts to commercial firms that can put very small satellites into orbit. The first VADR program allocates $300 million over a five-year period for launch services from twelve commercial firms. Some, like SpaceX, Blur Origin and Virgin Orbit are well known but all twelve have the capability of getting small satellites into orbit quickly. VADR expects the twelve vendors to develop workable solutions to fixed-price task-orders within 12-24 months, if not earlier. A decade ago, this approach seemed absurd. Early commercial firms like SpaceX were ridiculed initially because everyone knew that SLV (Satellite Launch Vehicles) and satellite construction were something only government organizations were capable of doing. A growing number of engineers and entrepreneurs believed that was nonsense and SpaceX proved that commercial firms were the way to go. VADR is an extension of an earlier, more modest program that worked and now VADR provides those opportunities and challenges to newer SLV services suppliers.
Since the late 1990s several countries in the West (especially the U.S.) have been developing very small satellites mainly because the technology had improved to the point where small was affordable and useful. The earliest of these ultrasmall satellites developed by the U.S. Department of Defense were called CubeSats. That is, their volume was no more than one liter (10x10cm or 4.1x4.1 inches) and weighed no more than 1.3 kg (three pounds). The military got the idea from the increasing use of commercial nanosatellites, which weighed no more than 6.8 kg (15 pounds). The U.S. military launched its first CubeSats in 2008 by piggybacking with a larger satellite that had unused space and weight in the payload nose cone.
It was quickly proven that CubeSats could be used for photo and electronic surveillance as well as communications. The rapid advances in communications and sensor technology in the early 21st century made it possible to build useful reconnaissance satellites weighing less and less. Tiny satellites like this include solar panels to provide power. A British firm pioneered this technology in the 1990s and made it possible to get scientific satellites into orbit for a fraction of the usual price. Since 2008 thousands of CubeSats (or similar designs) have been launched and the number is increasing each year. Most of the micro-satellites currently being launched are based on the CubeSat design. That standardization also allowed for the establishment of standards for placing many micro-satellites in a rocket's final stage, another factor in keeping delivery costs down.
The most visible pioneer in more affordable SLV services was a commercial firm; SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corporation). The key was finding or creating technology and techniques that made possible rapid development of more efficient rockets and SLVs.
SpaceX inspired European countries, which had already developed some of the tech that SpaceX used to build their novel rockets and SLVs. One of these techs was 3D printing of metal components for rocket engines and other major SLV components needed in small quantities. Use of traditional manufacturing methods like forging, machining and stamping metal are expensive and time consuming as well as expensive for small quantities. Change has been coming since the 1980s, when the concept of 3D printing tech arrived. Soon it was realized that this tech was evolving to the point where it could handle metal components and complex objects could be built with a 3D printing device. For manufacturers, this was a major revolution for supplying small numbers of complex systems or developing prototypes for testing and further refinement. Spacecraft developers and manufacturers were among the first to make very visible use of this new tech. The first decade of the 21st Century saw the appearance of the more effective 3D printers that could handle metal parts of different sizes and complexity that were equal to parts manufactured with traditional methods.
SpaceX, an SLV design and manufacturing operation was founded in 2002 with the goal of breaking into a market controlled by long-time suppliers. At the time these older firms had formed a legal cartel that monopolized satellite launch services for the U.S. government. This meant that after 2006 all this SLV business went to a government-approved monopoly called ULA (United Launch Alliance) which is composed of Lockheed Martin (using Atlas 5 rockets) and Boeing (Delta 4). These two firms have dominated U.S. space launches for over half a century and in 2006 they officially monopolized it. But not for long, as the future arrived unexpectedly.
One of the existing techs that SpaceX applied to their innovative rocket and SLV designs was 3D printing of components, especially for the smaller, liquid fuel rockets used in the final stage of an SLV to put the payload into orbit. These final stage rockets required small thruster engines to maneuver satellites into a specific orbit or maneuver space vehicles when they were docking with space stations, or any chore that required that kind of precision maneuvering in a gravity-free environment.
The other SpaceX innovation was rocket boosters designed to deploy struts and use software and engines designed to use less power and fuel to enable the booster vehicle to land intact and be used again, and again. No government operated program was willing to pay to make this work. Engineers grew more and more confident of making it work but no NASA bureaucrat or SLV manufacturer would take the risk. The founders of SpaceX thrived on risk and made it work, much to the consternation of government space programs everywhere. NASA soon accepted reusable boosters as low-risk tech and began giving SpaceX launch and design contracts. As each of these deals worked, SpaceX got more contracts and more commercial firms get into the business. VADR is giving more small firms a chance to demonstrate what they can do.