SpaceX Receives $53 Million Contract for Orbital Refueling Test

NASA has awarded SpaceX a $53 million contract for a full-scale test of refueling in space. Language in the contract calls for a “large-scale flight demonstration to transfer 10 metric tons of [liquid oxygen] between tanks on a Starship vehicle.”

The contract is part of NASA’s fifth round of the commercial development of “tipping point” technologies that will be important for deep space operations such as future crewed missions to other planets. Lockheed-Martin and the United Launch Alliance have also received contracts valued at $89.7 million and $86.2 million, respectively.

NASA regards the capacity to refuel spacecraft in space as a critical component of these future missions. Its planned Deep Space Gateway will be capable of making use of materials harvested on the Moon to refuel passing spacecraft. This will theoretically save on long-term costs compared to having to launch everything needed for a deep space mission from Earth’s gravity well, including the rocket fuel for return trips.

Supporter of crewed missions to other worlds also advocate for the use of “local” resources on other planets using In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) methods as a cost-saving measure. The Mars Society, for instance, says that creating rocket fuel on Mars is simply a matter of harvesting the necessary elements from the Martian atmosphere and applying a little basic chemistry.

Public vs. Private Rockets?

Supporters of NASA’s SLS program say that investment in “commercial space” is a distraction from development of the publicly owned hardware developed for the purpose of reaching the Moon and Mars. Commercial space is especially likely to annoy politicians who have seen the SLS as a valuable publicly funded “jobs program” for their districts.

On the flip side, private aerospace companies are not limited to selling their hardware to NASA. Besides NASA’s Commercial Crew program, which has already launched two astronauts to the International Space Station and returned them safely with SpaceX’s Demo-1 mission, SpaceX has plans to send private clients to lunar orbit as early as 2023. Investment in commercial space applications can help to boost the tech sector of the economy without relying solely on taxpayer dollars.

SpaceX is already showing signs that it can save taxpayer money through its reusable rocketry and the price tag of its planned refueling demonstration that is millions of dollars lower than Lockheed-Martin and the ULA seem capable of offering. It has also recently saved the U.S. Space Force $52.7 million by agreeing to use previously flown boosters to launch two GPS satellites as part of an existing contract.

Will SpaceX win out in the contest to send professional and private astronauts to the Moon and eventually to Mars? If the attractiveness of cost savings becomes a larger factor for taxpayers, politicians, and private individuals who want to go into space, it could very well happen. At least one Las Vegas bookmaker also says that the smart money is on SpaceX getting to Mars first. The $53 million refueling demonstration for NASA certainly won’t hurt.