SpaceX’s Starship wins $53M from NASA for full-scale orbital refueling test

SpaceX’s Starship program has won $53 million from NASA to perform a full-scale test of orbital propellant transfer, taking the company and space agency’s relationship on the crucial technology to the next level.

NASA revealed the results of its fifth round of “Tipping Point” solicitations on October 14th, announcing awards of more than $370 million total to 14 separate companies. This year’s investments focused on three main categories: “cryogenic fluid management, lunar surface [operations], and closed-loop [i.e. autonomous] descent and landing capability demonstrations.”

In a fairly predictable outcome, the bulk (~$176 million) went to Lockheed Martin and the United Launch Alliance (ULA), while the other half (~$189 million) was split among the twelve remaining companies. In an upset, however, SpaceX was awarded a substantial contract for a crucial aspect of Starship development.

Today’s Tipping Point contract is technically the second time NASA has awarded SpaceX funding for propellant transfer development. In October 2019, almost exactly one year ago, SpaceX won $3 million “to develop and test…cryogenic fluid coupler [prototypes] for large-scale in-space propellant transfer,” marking NASA’s first direct investment in Starship. It seems that NASA was thoroughly satisfied with the results of that icebreaker test – enough to fund a full demonstration of Starship propellant transfer to the tune of $53.2 million.

As Ars Technica’s Eric Berger notes, NASA investing eight figures in a SpaceX Starship propellant transfer demonstration – let alone some $250 million overall in four separate companies – comes as a major surprise. In doing so, NASA is effectively testing the tolerance of political stakeholders in programs like Orion and SLS – programs that exist more to preserve jobs and prop up Congressional stakeholders. If a magnitude(s)-cheaper and more capable solution like distributed launch and orbital refueling were demonstrated under NASA’s own purview, it might become a lot harder to defend heritage programs that have been hemorrhaging ~20% of the space agency’s annual budget for almost a decade.

NASA says that this round of Tipping Point contracts could last up to five years. Aside from a $41.6 million contract with Intuitive Machines to develop a Moon hopper spacecraft capable of propulsively hopping around the lunar surface, the most interesting awards are focused on “cryogenic fluid management.” Eta Space received $27 million for a “small-scale flight demonstration of a complete cryogenic oxygen fluid management system to be integrated with Rocket Lab’s Photon spacecraft bus and launched on an Electron rocket.

Lockheed Martin won $89.7 million for an “in-space demonstration mission using liquid hydrogen…to test more than a dozen cryogenic fluid management technologies.” ULA, of which Lockheed Martin is a member, was awarded $86.2 million to test “precise tank pressure control, tank-to-tank transfer, and multi-week propellant storage” with a Vulcan Centaur upper stage.

SpaceX has won NASA funding to develop a custom Starship variant designed to land astronauts on the Moon. (SpaceX)

Finally, SpaceX won $53.2 million for a “large-scale flight demonstration to transfer 10 metric tons of [liquid oxygen] between tanks on a Starship vehicle.” Notably, this seems to imply that NASA is effectively funding a single-ship orbital flight test in which a Starship prototype will (most likely) attempt to transfer liquid oxygen between its main LOx tank and a smaller ‘header’ tank.

Coming on the heels of an April 2020 contract that awarded SpaceX $135 million to develop a crewed Starship design optimized for Moon landings, NASA is beginning to put some serious money where its mouth is to develop a wide range of innovative solutions that may enable sustainable human space exploration.