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NASA is making a significant investment in refueling in orbit

If one wants to have starships on Mars, one must first refuel them in Earth orbit.
Zoom in / If one wants to have starships on Mars, one must first refuel them in Earth orbit.

NASA has reached an agreement with 14 American companies to develop technologies that will allow future ways of exploration in space and on the surface of the moon. NASA says the Tipping Point technology awards are worth more than $ 370 million.

With these awards, the space agency relies heavily on technologies related to the collection, storage and transfer of cryogenic fuels into space. Four of the prizes, worth more than $ 250 million, will go to companies specifically for technical demonstrations of “cryogenic fluid management”


  • Eta Space on Merritt Island, Florida, $ 27 million. Small-scale flight demonstration of a complete cryogenic oxygen control system. The system will be the main payload of a Rocket Lab Photon satellite and will collect critical data to control cryogenic fluids in orbit for nine months.
  • Lockheed Martin of Littleton, Colorado, $ 89.7 million. Demonstration mission in space 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 demonstration of a flight to transfer 10 metric tons of cryogenic fuel, in particular liquid oxygen, between the tanks of a Starship vehicle.
  • United Launch Alliance (ULA) of Centennial, Colorado, $ 86.2 million. Demonstration of an intelligent propulsion cryogenic system using liquid oxygen and hydrogen on the upper stage of the Centaur volcano. The system will test precise tank pressure control, tank transfer and multi-week fuel storage.

These awards are remarkable, as for most of the last decade, the agency has been reluctant to invest in technologies that will allow the handling of cold fuel in space. The official reason given for this reluctance was that the technology of setting up “fuel depots” and transferring liquid hydrogen and oxygen to and from these landfills was considered unprepared for prime time. But there were also political reasons.

The reality is that the creation of space-loading technologies provides a new paradigm for space flight. It allows refueling in the second stage of a reusable rocket, allows for multiple “tugs” that can move back and forth between the Earth and the Moon, and allows smaller rockets to play a greater role in study. All of this undermines the need for a very large, expensive rocket, such as the space launch system that Congress has ordered NASA to build.

Of the four new awards, the two most notable are those going to the United Launch Alliance (ULA) and SpaceX. ULA has been interested in cryopreservation technology for years, after doing some research on its own about a decade ago and preparing for tests in space at propulsion warehouses. Then, in 2011, one of the co-owners of ULA, Boeing, won a contract to build the main stage of the Space Launch System rocket. The internal work on this depot technology has largely stopped.

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