NASA has reached an agreement with 14 US companies to develop technologies that will enable future methods of exploration in space and on the surface of the moon. NASA says the value of these awards for “Tipping Point” technologies is over $370 million.
With these awards, the space agency is relying heavily on technologies related to the collection, storage and transfer of cryogenic propellants into space. Four of the prizes, totaling more than $250 million, will go to companies specific to technical demonstrations of “cryogenic fluid management”:
- Eta Space of Merritt Island, Florida, $27 million† Small-scale flight demonstration of a complete cryogenic oxygen fluid management system. The system will be the primary payload on a Rocket Lab Photon satellite and spend nine months in orbit collecting critical data on cryogenic fluid management.
- Lockheed Martin of Littleton, Colorado, $89.7 million† In-space demonstration mission using liquid hydrogen to test more than a dozen cryogenic fluid management technologies, positioning them for infusion into future space systems.
- SpaceX from Hawthorne, California, $53.2 million† Large scale flying demonstration to transfer 10 tons of cryogenic propellant, specifically liquid oxygen, between tanks on a Starship vehicle.
- United Launch Alliance (ULA) of Centennial, Colorado, $86.2 million† Demonstration of a cryogenic system for smart propulsion, using liquid oxygen and hydrogen, on a Vulcan Centaur upper stage. The system will test precise tank pressure control, tank-to-tank transfer and multi-week propellant storage.
These awards are notable because for much of the past decade, the agency has been hesitant to invest in technologies that allow the handling of cold propellant in space. The official reason for this reluctance was that the technology for creating propellant “depots” and transferring liquid hydrogen and oxygen to and from these depots was not considered ready for prime time. But there were also political reasons.
The reality is that creating fuel technologies in space is enabling a new paradigm for spaceflight. It allows refueling a rocket’s second stage for multiple uses, enables reusable “tugs” that can move back and forth between the Earth and the moon, and allows smaller rockets to play a greater role in reconnaissance programs . All of this undermines the need for a very large, expensive rocket like the Space Launch System Congress had NASA build.
Of the four new awards, the two most notable are those to United Launch Alliance (ULA) and SpaceX. ULA has been interested in cryo-storage technology for years, after doing some research of its own about a decade ago and preparing for space testing at propellant depots. Then, in 2011, one of ULA’s co-owners, Boeing, won a contract to build the core phase of the Space Launch System rocket. The internal work on this depot technology has largely been stopped.
“We weren’t even allowed to say the ‘d’ word out loud,” said George Sowers, who led advanced programs for ULA at the time. “The sad thing is that ULA has done a lot of groundbreaking work in that area and could have owned the tank/depot market, enriching Boeing (and Lockheed) but it was shut down because it threatened SLS.”
Meanwhile, SpaceX is building the large Starship launch system, which would be more capable than NASA’s SLS rocket. However, to unlock Starship’s potential, SpaceX must first understand how to transfer liquid oxygen and methane into orbit. Just over a year ago, NASA took an important step when it agreed to partner with SpaceX on orbital tank technology. But no funds were transferred under this Space Act agreement.
Now the space agency is stepping up with financial support for ideas it believes will help its efforts to send more and more people to the moon by the 2020s. In announcing the awards, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said the agency is going to “U.S. companies interested in going to the surface of the moon and interested in exploring space in new and unique ways.” NASA now seems interested in this too.