SpaceX’s Starship program won $ 53 million from NASA to conduct a comprehensive test of orbital fuel transfer, taking the company and the space agency’s relationship with critical technology to the next level.
NASA revealed the results of its fifth round of “turning point” requests on October 14th, announcing awards totaling more than $ 370 million for 14 separate companies. This year’s investment focused on three main categories: “Cryogenic Fluid Management,” Lunar Surface [operations], And closed loop [i.e. autonomous] Offers the ability to land and land. “
In a somewhat predictable outcome, the largest portion (approximately $ 176 million) went to the Lockheed Martin and United Launch Alliance (ULA), while the other half (approximately $ 189 million) was split between the remaining twelve companies. However, in surprise, SpaceX was awarded a major contract for a crucial aspect of the Starship’s development.
Today’s Tipping Point contract is technically the second time that NASA has given funding to SpaceX to develop fuel transportation. In October 2019, roughly one year ago, SpaceX won $ 3 million “to develop and test … [prototypes] To transport fuel on a large scale in space, ”which is NASA’s first direct investment in the Starship. NASA appears to have been completely satisfied with the results of the icebreaker test – enough to fund an entire $ 53.2 million propellant conversion demonstration of the spacecraft.
As Eric Berger of Ars Technica notes, NASA’s eight-digit investment in SpaceX Starship’s fuel transportation bid – not to mention about $ 250 million overall in four separate companies – comes as a huge surprise. In doing so, NASA is effectively testing the tolerance of political stakeholders in programs like Orion and SLS – the programs that most exist to preserve jobs and support stakeholders in Congress. If a cheaper and more capable solution such as distributed launch and in-orbit refueling were offered within NASA’s remit, it could become very difficult to defend legacy programs that have been bleeding ~ 20% of the space agency’s annual budget for nearly a decade.
NASA says this round of turning point contracts could last for up to five years. Aside from a $ 41.6 million contract with Intuitive Machines to develop a spacecraft in the form of a lunar launcher capable of vaulting around the surface of the moon, the most interesting prizes are focused on “cryogenic fluid management”. Eta Space received $ 27 million for a “small-scale pilot demonstration of a complete cryogenic liquid oxygen management system” to be combined with the Rocket Lab Spacecraft Photon Bus and launched on an electronic rocket.
Lockheed Martin won $ 89.7 million for “an experimental mission in space using liquid hydrogen … to test over a dozen cryogenic fluid management technologies.” ULA, of which Lockheed Martin is a member, secured $ 86.2 million to test “precise tank pressure control, tank-to-tank transportation, and multi-week fuel storage” with the Vulcan Centaur’s upper stage.
Finally, SpaceX won $ 53.2 million for a “large-scale flight test offer to transport 10 metric tons of [liquid oxygen] Between tanks on the Starship. ”Notably, this indicates that NASA is actively funding an orbital flight test of a single ship as the spacecraft model will (most likely) attempt to transport liquid oxygen between the main LOx tank and a smaller tank.
In the wake of the April 2020 contract that awarded SpaceX $ 135 million to develop an improved manned spacecraft design for a lunar landing, NASA has begun putting in some serious money as it develops a wide range of innovative solutions that may enable sustainable human space exploration.
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