NASA has announced that SpaceX will work with the agency to advance in-orbit propellant transfer technology as part of the development of the company’s Starship launch vehicle.
In a July 30 press release, NASA officials confirmed that SpaceX would work with the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center and Glenn Research Center to develop the technology. The partnership was announced as one of 19 non-reimbursable Space Act Agreements with 13 US companies to “mature industry-developed space technologies and help maintain American leadership in Space”
“NASA’s proven experience and unique facilities are helping commercial companies mature their technologies at a competitive pace,” said associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, Jim Reuter. “We’ve identified technology areas NASA needs for future missions, and these public-private partnerships will accelerate their development so we can implement them faster.”
The announcement of NASA’s move to develop in-orbit refueling has not been without controversy. Just hours after details of the partnership were revealed, comments on Twitter from a physicist who worked at United Launch Alliance (ULA) in the mid-2010s ignited heated debate.
During his time at ULA, George Sowers was the lead of the advanced programs group for the aerospace giant. In a series of Tweets, Sowers explained that the group had published a number of papers detailing a possible depot/refueling architecture. This architecture would enable a human exploration program to the Moon and beyond utilizing existing launch vehicles.
Despite the promising outlook of the depot/refueling architecture for the advancement of human exploration, any talk of it was soon shut down by ULA parent company, Boeing. Sowers explained that the move was made because the technology “threated SLS”, the heavy-lift rocket Boeing is developing for NASA.
Thus far, more than $14 billion has been awarded to Boeing for the development of the rocket. Despite this, it’s not expected to make its maiden flight until late 2021 after a decade in development.