SpaceX and NASA could take a tentative step toward orbital refueling on the next test flight of Starship, but the US space agency says officials haven’t made a final decision on when to begin demonstrating cryogenic propellant transfer capabilities that are necessary to return astronauts to the Moon.
NASA is keen on demonstrating orbital refueling technology, an advancement that could lead to propellant depots in space to feed rockets heading to distant destinations beyond Earth orbit. In 2020, NASA announced agreements with four companies—Lockheed Martin, United Launch Alliance, SpaceX, and a Florida-based startup named Eta Space—to prove capabilities in the area of refueling and propellant depots using cryogenic propellants.
These cryogenic fluids—liquid hydrogen, methane, and liquid oxygen—must be kept at temperatures of several hundred degrees below zero, or they turn into a gas and boil off. Russian supply freighters regularly refuel the International Space Station with hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide, room-temperature rocket propellants that can be stored for years in orbit, but rockets using more efficient super-cold propellants have typically needed to complete their missions within hours.
NASA and industry engineers want to extend this lifetime to days, weeks, or months, but this requires new technologies to maintain the propellants at cryogenic temperature and, in some cases like Starship, to transfer the propellants from one vehicle to another.
NASA and several companies are funding efforts in this area, called cryogenic fluid management. NASA’s agreements from 2020 committed more than $250 million in government funding for cryogenic fluid management tests in space. These funding agreements announced in October 2020, called “Tipping Point” awards, require substantial private funding from the companies participating in the demonstrations.
According to John Dankanich, who leads NASA’s efforts in developing new capabilities for in-space transportation, there are “major technical obstacles” for cryogenic fluid management. The real challenge, he said, will be in validating things like automated couplers, flow meters, and advanced insulation all work together in microgravity. These, along with other technologies, are “highly interdependent” on one another to make cryogenic refueling a reality, he said.
Individual technologies necessary for in-orbit cryogenic refueling are at a stage of development where they are “ready now to go into flight systems,” Dankanich said, either with a demonstration in space or on an operational spacecraft.
First, small steps
By the fourth anniversary of those awards, only SpaceX appears to have a chance to complete the tasks outlined in its “Tipping Point” award, valued at $53 million.
This test would involve transferring super-cold propellant from one tank to another inside a Starship spacecraft. It’s a precursor to future, more complex demonstrations involving two giant Starships docked together in Earth orbit. Then SpaceX will be ready to send a Starship toward the Moon for a test landing without astronauts onboard. Once that is successful, NASA will clear Starship for a crew landing on the agency’s Artemis III mission, marking the astronauts’ return to the lunar surface for the first time since 1972.
That’s easier said than done; all worthy projects require a first step. That could happen as soon as the next full-scale test flight of SpaceX’s gigantic Super Heavy booster and Starship rocket, a stainless steel launcher that stands nearly 400 feet (121 meters) tall. SpaceX has flown the rocket twice, most recently on November 18, when the Starship upper stage reached space for the first time before self-destructing just short of orbital velocity. This test flight was largely successful, achieving several key milestones such as stage separation and demonstrating improved reliability of the rocket’s methane-fueled Raptor engines.
SpaceX has a $2.9 billion contract with NASA to provide a commercial Human Landing System (HLS) derived from Starship for the Artemis III mission, the first human landing mission planned during NASA’s Artemis program. The readiness of the Starship landing craft and new commercial spacesuits are widely seen as drivers of the schedule for Artemis III, which is at risk of a delay from late 2025.
Lakiesha Hawkins, deputy associate administrator for NASA’s Moon to Mars program office, discussed the Artemis schedule Monday with a committee from the National Academies charged with reviewing the agency’s workforce, infrastructure, and technology programs.
Hawkins did not verbally address SpaceX’s plans for the next Starship test flight, but one of her slides noted SpaceX is “moving quickly” toward the third Super Heavy/Starship launch, and that this flight “will include a propellant transfer demonstration.”