NASA has selected 14 companies for contracts worth more than $ 370 million to advance technology for human missions to the moon and Mars. Most of the money supports floating demonstrations from SpaceX, the United Launch Alliance and other companies that can lead to space refueling and propellant for reusable lunar landers and deep space transportation vehicles.
The bulk of the “Tipping Point” awards announced Wednesday allow NASA to pay companies to conduct space-based technology demonstrations at similar prices in previous years, focusing on component development and testing the Earth.
NASA selected Lockheed Martin, United Launch Alliance, SpaceX and a small Florida-based company called Eta Space at the highest value prices, focusing on cryogenic liquid handling, capabilities that could lead to the transfer of supercooled liquid hydrogen, methane and liquid oxygen propellants between vehicles in space.
Approximately $ 256 million of the $ 372 million in NASA Tipping Point awards will support cryogenic storage and refueling technology. The rest is aimed at developing power, precision landing, communications and other systems to support future missions to the moon’s surface.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said Wednesday that NASA aims to advance the development of commercial refueling technology and propulsion depots in support of lunar exploration and eventually human missions to Mars.
“We have an ambition to get to the moon with the next man and the first woman by 2024,” Bridenstine said, referring to the agency’s Artemis program. “We want to be sustainable by 2028. What this means for me is that we want our Human Landing Systems to be recycled by 2028, which means we need to have some capacity to refuel. 2028. ”
Eventually, water ice inside the moon’s polar craters could be tapped to generate rocket fuel, air, water and other resources. In the short term, the fuel depot and refueling technologies will rely on resources launched from the ground up.
“A lot of companies and academic institutions … they want to find out, and NASA is obviously ready to be a customer in the future,” Bridenstine said.
The space agency said Wednesday it will begin negotiating with each of Tipping Point-awarded dealers to issue milestone-based fixed-price contracts lasting up to five years.
“Many of these different architectures and capabilities will depend on how the private sector innovates,” Bridenstine said at a meeting of the Lunar Surface Innovation Consortium. “This is why I think it’s important for NASA to work with the private industry and academia because they come up with solutions that are exceptionally unique and different, and in the end they really want to drive what ends. with being the fuel depots, whether they are in orbit around the Earth or in orbit around the moon. ”
Lockheed Martin was selected for a $ 89.7 million contract to carry out a demonstration in space using liquid hydrogen to test more than a dozen cryogenic fluid control technologies and place them for infusion into future space systems, NASA said. Liquid hydrogen is the most challenging – and most effective – cryogenic propellant to work with in space because it must be maintained at temperatures below minus 423 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 253 degrees Celsius) to prevent it from being converted to a gas and boiling off.
NASA said Lockheed Martin will collaborate with the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center and Glenn Research Center on the project.
The United Launch Alliance will demonstrate a “smart propulsion cryogenic system that uses liquid oxygen and hydrogen, on a Vulcan Centaur top step,” NASA said. ULA’s price is valued at $ 86.2 million.
ULA’s next generation Vulcan Centaur rocket is ready to launch its initial test flight in the second half of 2021.
The company has long promoted depot to propellant in space and has proposed a more advanced top step that can perform missions that last days or weeks in deep space. Centaur’s top phase, currently flying on ULA’s rockets, can complete missions lasting just over six hours.
NASA said the smart propulsion cryogenic system will “test precise tank pressure control, tank-to-tank transfer and propellant storage for several weeks.” Engineers at Marshall, Glenn and NASA’s Kennedy Space Center will work with ULA on the demonstration.
A $ 53.2 million prize for SpaceX will go toward a “large-scale float demonstration to transfer 10 tons of cryogenic propellant, specifically liquid oxygen, between tanks on a Starship vehicle,” NASA said.
SpaceXs Starship is designed to transport more than 100 tons of goods to low ground. With the docking of a refueling tanker in Earth orbit, SpaceX was able to refill a starship with methane and liquid oxygen propellants to launch to more distant destinations, such as the moon or Mars.
SpaceX will partner with Glenn and Marshall on the Starship fuel transfer demo, NASA said.
“When we think of companies like SpaceX and Starship, their architecture is heavily dependent on the ability to transfer cryogenics in a low-Earth orbit with the goal of taking a system all the way to the moon,” Bridenstine said Wednesday. “In fact, their system does not seem to require a fuel depot around the moon. Their system would require a fuel depot in orbit around the Earth. ”
SpaceX’s Starship is one of three lunar terrestrial concepts that NASA chose in April to transport astronauts to and from the moon’s surface. NASA also selected commercial teams led by Blue Origin and Dynetics to work on Human Landing Systems.
A small company called Eta Space on Merritt Island, Florida, won a $ 27 million award from NASA for a “small demonstration of a complete cryogenic oxygen fluid management system,” the space agency said.
“As proposed, the system will be the primary payload on a Rocket Lab Photon satellite and collect critical cryogenic fluid control data in orbit for nine months,” NASA said. “The small business will work with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland and NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.”
Rocket Labs Photon spacecraft platform is designed to launch on top of an electron rocket. Rocket Lab announced last month that it has successfully launched the first Photon spacecraft designed to host Earth observation sensors, communications payloads and scientific experiments on missions to Earth orbit and beyond.
NASA has already contracted with Rocket Lab to fly a small research mission called CAPSTONE to orbit the moon next year using an electron rocket and Photon platform.
NASA chose Masten Space Systems to demonstrate precision landing, hazard avoidance and a universal chemical heat and electric power supply to help payloads survive two-week lunar nights. The mast’s two deals are valued cumulatively at $ 12.8 million.
Priced at $ 41.6 million, Intuitive Machines will develop a towable lander that can be installed and can carry a payload of 2.2 pounds (2.5 kg) over 2.5 km above the surface of the moon, enabling exploration of craters out of reach of larger, conventional rovers.
The Alpha Space Test and Research Alliance of Houston will receive about $ 22.1 million from NASA to develop a space science and technology evaluation facility to give small experiments access to the moon’s surface, and Maxar Technologies won $ 8.7 million in NASA funding for to help develop a lighter and cheaper robotic arm for operations on the moon’s surface, in orbit and on Earth.
Nokia receives a NASA contract to provide $ 14.1 million to support early research into the first LTE / 4G communications network in space, which NASA says could support long-distance communications over the moon’s surface.
Sierra Nevada Corp. won $ 2.4 million to develop demonstration hardware that uses methane and concentrated solar energy to extract oxygen from lunar soil, according to NASA.
NASA also selected Astrobotic, pH Matter, Precision Combustion and Teledyne Energy Systems for awards focusing on testing wireless charging technology and regenerative power-generating fuel cells for potential use on the moon.
“I think there are two things that are critically important,” Bridenstine said. “We need power systems that can last a long time on the moon’s surface, and we need housing on the surface of the moon.”
Email the author.
Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @ StephenClark1.