SpaceX, Propellant Depots, and Rocket Markets

SpaceX, Propellant Depots, and Rocket Markets

A Win for NASA and SpaceX?

“As soon as you’ve got orbital refueling, you can send significant payload to the Moon. Like, significant meaning 100 tons of useful payload at a shot.”--Elon Musk, “WATCH: Elon Musk at 2020 Mars Society Event - Livestream,” 33:30.

With the above quote, Elon Musk explains SpaceX’s interest in orbital refueling, or propellant transfer, for the company’s yet-to-be-manufactured Starship system. He noted this during a question and answer session in a live stream last Friday. He added that he believed SpaceX could complete this capability by 2022. If SpaceX achieves propellant transfer by that year, then NASA will possibly be pleasantly surprised.

NASA awarded another firm-fixed-price contract (this one for $53 million) to SpaceX through its “Tipping Point” Public-Private Partnership program to demonstrate this capability. NASA noted awarded Tipping Point contracts in this latest round could last as long as five years. As with SpaceX’s deal with the SDA for infrared LEO satellites, the company can develop another capability it needs for its Mars endeavor using government funding. According to NASA’s press release, SpaceX will conduct a:

“Large-scale flight demonstration to transfer 10 metric tons of cryogenic propellant, specifically liquid oxygen, between tanks on a Starship vehicle. SpaceX will collaborate with Glenn and Marshall.”

Such a demonstration would include:

“...robust cryogenic couplers with minimal thermal and fluid leakage, transfer line chill-down and flow control operations, pumped or differential pressure propellant flow control, liquid acquisition devices or techniques, receiving tank chill-down and high fill level capability.”

It’s unclear if SpaceX is one of the companies that won a five-year contract, but considering 2022 is only 14 months away, perhaps Musk is, as he’s been in the past, being overly optimistic in his guesstimate? The fact that NASA specifically called out Starship in this contract indicates confidence from the administration in SpaceX’s ability to field the rocket and spacecraft within five years. Musk appears more confident with his 2022 estimate.

The Odd Man Out

It’s weird that a month before NASA’s announcement of its SpaceX agreement, the United Launch Alliance (ULA) decided it was no longer pursuing its advanced cryogenic evolved stage (ACES) upper stage. ULA was promoting ACES for all of the reasons (and more) that NASA is currently looking for in its Tipping Point allocations:

For Civil missions

•  Science – Direct insertion to orbits of interest (e.g. LOI)

• Exploration Enhancement – cargo to Gateway

• Following ISS decommission moving ISS to museum orbit (1,000 year orbit)

Commercial missions

• Optimized Orbit Delivery

• Multiple Payload Direct Delivery

• Enhanced Direct to GSO Delivery

• Cislunar Transportation Enabler

National Security missions

• Enhanced Direct to GSO Delivery

• Superior delivery options with added duration, number of burns, payload electric power & ACS propulsion

ULA had long promoted (for over a decade) ACES for orbital propellant transfer, receiving zero interest, and, more crucially, zero money from government customers. Since the Tipping Point announcement came out in June 2020, I assume ULA floated its ACES upper stage to NASA (again), but NASA went with SpaceX. Instead of ACES, NASA is paying ULA $86 million for a:

“[d]emonstration of a smart propulsion cryogenic system, using liquid oxygen and hydrogen, on a Vulcan Centaur upper stage. The system will test precise tank pressure control, tank-to-tank transfer, and multi-week propellant storage. ULA will collaborate with Marshall, Kennedy, and Glenn.”

Considering how seemingly fleshed out ULA’s proposed ACES had become through the years, should it be worrying to ULA that NASA didn’t select it (if it did throw its hat in the ring)? Probably not. At a guess, but knowing ULA’s premium added to its government-focused services, it could be that ACES costs were too high for the Tipping Point allocation ($370 million). That reason alone would be enough for NASA to pass on ACES. But another possible and plausible explanation, politics, highlights the problems of a weak “space launch market” prone to political protectionism.

The Market Needs Work

Weak, in the sense that there was a large stakeholder, Boeing, involved in two-three government programs: the Space Launch System (SLS) and government/military space launch services (as a ULA stakeholder). Boeing’s involvement wouldn’t have been a problem if more U.S. space launch providers had similar capabilities to ULA, but they didn’t exist. This lack of competitors is emphasized in an Ars Technica article last week, “The SLS rocket may have curbed development of on-orbit refueling for a decade.”

The Ars Technica article takes us back to ULA’s interest in developing ACES. The company thought it could do it for less than $100 million. According to the article, Boeing, fearful of what such a system might mean for SLS (less funding), wanted to curtail ULA’s forays into developing a propellant depot. George Sowers, a former ULA employee, noted (on Twitter):

“Boeing became furious and tried to get me fired. Kudos to my CEO for protecting me. But we were banned from even saying the “d” word out loud.”

The “d” word is referring to “depot.”

Nearly ten years ago, a minor elected official and a company decided the United States didn’t need more space capability. They were both driven by short-term gains (although saying SLS is short-term is being too generous). If the U.S. space launch service industry were truly commercial, healthy, and thriving, with multiple competitors, would the idea of a propellant transfer depot have been squelched as easily? Sowers might have easily transferred over to another company interested in gaining a leg up on its competitors.

Ten years later, NASA is paying money to SpaceX to develop the capability. The deal is a good thing for NASA and SpaceX. At least one smallsat launch service provider also appears to be gaining traction. But the U.S. space launch “market” still isn’t thriving. The fact that SpaceX is strong and innovating (for its Mars missions) is exciting and promising. But the fact that SpaceX is the only manufacturer of large rockets that’s doing those activities means it’s focused on what it thinks it needs to do to get to Mars and not much else. In contrast, ULA appears concentrated on activities to gain and keep government launch contracts.

The U.S. and global launch markets need more choice.