Spaceflight Insider

NASA awards TDRS launch contract to United Launch Alliance

TDRS-K satellite on orbit above Earth NASA image posted on SpaceFlight Insider

The TDRS-K satellite in orbit above Earth. Image Credit: NASA

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) constellation is getting a new member to the fleet. NASA has awarded the launch contract for TDRS-M to Colorado-based United Launch Alliance (ULA). If everything goes according to plan, the satellite will launch atop a ULA Atlas V 401 rocket in October of 2017.

“We are very pleased that NASA has selected ULA to launch TDRS-M,” said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president of Atlas and Delta Programs. “ULA and NASA have collaborated on 11 highly successful Atlas V launches and we look forward to applying a one-launch-at-time focus on mission success to the TDRS-M mission.”

TDRS-M logo NASA image posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Image Credit: NASA

The Tracking and Relay Satellite System (TDRS) is a constellation of satellites that provides communication between NASA vehicles in low Earth orbit such as the International Space Station (ISS) as well as aircraft, balloons, and other science bearing platforms. There are currently seven operational TDRS units in geosynchronous orbit. These satellites work in tandem with two ground stations. The entire system allows constant communication between vehicles as well as ground control centers.

“NASA has trusted our highly-reliable Atlas vehicles to launch all second and third generation TDRS satellites,” said Laura Maginnis, ULA vice president of Custom Services via a statement issued by ULA. “Our team is ready to again demonstrate the critical teamwork with NASA to ensure the successful integration and launch for the next in the series of TDRS satellites.”

The TDRS program was established in 1973, with the first satellite of the initiative being placed into orbit on April 4, 1983, aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger’s first flight (STS-6). The first generation of TDRS satellites were built by TRW. In total, seven of these first generation spacecraft were constructed – although TDRS-B was destroyed with the loss of Challenger on STS-51-L. These first generation satellites worked in the S and Ku radio spectrums.

A second generation of TDRS spacecraft were manufactured by Boeing. These three vehicles added advanced performance and the addition of the Ka radio spectrum to the spacecraft’s capabilities. A more advanced series of TDRS (generation 3) was also built by Boeing enhancing performance even further. This latest launch contract between NASA and ULA will place the third of these advanced spacecraft into orbit. All generation 2 and 3 TDRS spacecraft have been launched by ULA.

As with some U.S. satellites, TDRS vehicles change their designation once they reach operational status. For example, TDRS-A became TDRS-1 upon activation.

ULA will utilize Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 in Florida to send the TDRS-M spacecraft on its way. All total NASA estimated it has spent some $132.4 million to have the satellite reach its destination.

NASA uses TDRS for around-the-clock communications with the International Space Station, as well as for uncrewed assets such as the Hubble Space Telescope and other spacecraft.


Joe Latrell is a life-long avid space enthusiast having created his own rocket company in Roswell, NM in addition to other consumer space endeavors. He continues to design, build and launch his own rockets and has a passion to see the next generation excited about the opportunities of space exploration. Joe lends his experiences from the corporate and small business arenas to organizations such as Teachers In Space, Inc. He is also actively engaged in his church investing his many skills to assist this and other non-profit endeavors.

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