NASA has confirmed a contract award to SpaceX for a demo of orbital refueling. The flight demonstration will include transferring 10 metric tons of liquid oxygen between tanks on a Starship vehicle.
The ability to refuel in space has been presented as an important component for journeys to other worlds such as Mars. The original plan for NASA’s “Journey to Mars” included using the Lunar Gateway to refuel spacecraft headed for Mars, although supporters of crewed missions to Mars such as the Mars Society’s Robert Zubrin criticized it as an unnecessary and expensive step. Plans for the Lunar Gateway has since been modified for greater focus on logistical support for crewed lunar exploration.
Refueling in space is likely to become more practical if it can be done using resources that were generated using In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU). The Perseverance Rover has recently demonstrated the capacity to generate oxygen on Mars, which besides being important for creating breathing air for future Martian crews or settlers, can also be used to create rocket fuel. This can bring mission complexity and costs down because, if refueling in space is required, organizations like NASA can save money by not having to launch it from Earth.
Elon Musk’s own ambitions for Mars include establishing a viable settlement on the red planet. His plans include sending as many as a million settlers on the Starship rocket. He calls the plan an important step in making humans an interplanetary species and helping humanity survive in case of a disaster that causes a mass extinction. Musk has acknowledged that settling Mars will be a high-risk venture in recent comments, although he has mentioned that he wouldn’t mind dying on Mars (just not on impact).
“This is really about eliminating existential risk for civilization as a whole. … Being confined to Earth until some eventual extinction event is depressing. We need things that make you want to get out of bed in the morning,” he told the audience at last August’s virtual Mars Society conference.
Robert Zubrin praised Elon Musk’s plans for Starship, even while acknowledging that any serious Martian settlement effort will likely require collaboration across multiple aerospace companies and experts: “SpaceX is taking on the biggest single challenge, which is the transportation system. There’s all sorts of other systems that are going to be needed.”
Although SpaceX’s Starship rocket is not yet operational, it has recently succeeded in landing the SN15 prototype in one piece during a high-altitude test flight after losing the four previous prototypes in explosions during or shortly after landing. SpaceX is currently planning a one-orbit test of Starship that will launch from its test facility in Boca Chica, Texas, and come down off the Hawaiian coast.
SpaceX’s refueling test is part of NASA’s Tipping Point Technologies program, which funds research and development for technologies that will be required for sustainable space exploration missions. The selection of SpaceX’s refueling demonstration proposal is part of a series of contracts worth more than $370 million, spread over 15 companies. The contract between SpaceX and NASA is worth $53.2 million.