NASA Formalizes SpaceX Orbital Refueling Demo Contract

NASA has formalized an October, 2020 contract for SpaceX to get $53 million for an orbital refueling demo contract.

There will be 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.

Contract 80MSFC21C0007 (from solicitation 80HQTR20NOA01-20STMD80)
On-Orbit Large Scale Cryogenic Propellant Management and Transfer Demonstration


Date Signed (mm/dd/yyyy) : 05/04/2021
Period of Performance Start Date (mm/dd/yyyy) : 05/04/2021
Est. Ultimate Completion Date (mm/dd/yyyy) : 12/31/2022

SOURCES- NASA, Marcus House, SpaceX, Space Video, Elon Musk
Written By Brian Wang,

25 thoughts on “NASA Formalizes SpaceX Orbital Refueling Demo Contract”

  1. First you get a way to put fuel out of a rocket and into a rocker..
    For this you need just two rockets.
    The "orbital facility" is just "a rocket" without engines.

  2. That's what I'm thinking: You'd have a tank farm in orbit, you'd launch propellants to it on a regular schedule, and whenever you had a hole in your launch schedule.

    Then you could rapidly refuel ships in orbit independent of your tanker launch cadence. You don't need a week lead-up to doing it, you just launch and refuel on short notice.

  3. Moon dust could be process into oxygen and a metallic power that could power an hybrid rocket. We could also use a high g mass driver to send it to earth's orbit.

  4. I don't disagree. If Bezos was half the man Musk is then he would self fund his rockets. Its nauseating seeing him try to suck on the government teat.

    Reminds me of Gates running around cap in hand begging for money for his nuclear reactor. If it is revolutionary then just self fund it.

    Multi-billionaires begging for government handouts is so sad.

  5. I go back to my old line of thinking that these plans aren't actually taking the success of Starship in to consideration.

    Once Starship is successful and launch costs drop then you can build a manned station that manages fuel in orbit. You don't have to do everything with Starship variants.

    In other words Starship is the foundation for better solutions to problems.

  6. Musk will put a man on Mars faster and for 1/10 the cost of the existing space companies. It is called a win win.

  7. OOPs we will have another protests by Bazos. You know the guy who protested the lander lander since he had no vehicle and required huge development monies while Musk said he would do it for a fixed cost and he would assume the risks. His congressional lap dogs screamed righteous indignation in congress and said they wanted MORE money so that Bazos could play with Musk even though he has no where near the abilities. Just because your rich does not make you brilliant or inventive. You know Bazos who pays no taxes and has no new inventions and has his employees pee in bottles since they are not allowed to take bathroom breaks.

  8. Well, if they're really using cold gas thrusters, that's a pretty inefficient way to provide boost. But I suppose.

  9. From my understanding, the first tanker will remain in orbit, receiving fuel from other tankers, then transfer it to cargo- and crewed- Starships for their missions.

  10. According to the graphic, they'll be using milli-g acceleration from gas thrusters.

    This is going to be interesting to watch – I can think of a couple of ways they can connect the tanks together, the problem will be making sure you get a good seal.

  11. So the rockets get to do fluid exchange in space before humans do? Not sure this will be suitable for viewing by a 5th grade class 😉

  12. Better the end than the walls, certainly; The walls would tend to be unstable, for one thing, even without the propellant, but especially with it.

  13. Does this contract even require docking two Starships and transferring LOX between them? Or just moving it between tanks on single Starship?

  14. Yep, this seems strangely absent on the discussions about this.

    Spinning is the easiest source of pseudo-g acceleration, and they only require a little bit to get the fuel settled on the walls or on some end (depending on the rotation axis), and have the pumps work correctly.

  15. You can transfer the fuel using a pressure difference, rather than pumps, but gas can't settle the tank. 

    The problem is, in zero G, the propellant has no reason to be any particular location inside the tank. As soon as there's any gas space in the tank, you stand a good chance of just transferring gas, unless you have some way of settling the contents, and keeping them settled during the transfer.

    Spin is your best bet for that.

  16. A little gas would help. Like your plan for a gas station in space. Maybe they can add a space station to it. Many years ago I read about an atmospheric skimmer that would collect Oxygen in the upper atmosphere. It would need a power source to operate. Maybe beamed power or nuclear.

  17. Going to require at least some acceleration to settle the contents of the tank. Tail to tail would seem to shorten the pipe runs, but if they're going to put on a little bit of spin, the propellant will end up at the end of the tank furthest from the tail, they'll have to plumb things accordingly.

    I continue to think SpaceX's plans would be best served by an orbital fuel dump, so that fuel could be accumulated in orbit on a regular basis, or even as filler missions, and then loaded all at once.

    Even for refueling in eccentric orbits to minimize delta V requirements, an LEO fuel dump makes sense.


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