WASHINGTON — Development of a key capability NASA needs for exploration of the moon and Mars is being hindered by limited access to data from companies working on those capabilities.
In a presentation at a Dec. 4 meeting of a National Academies’ Committee on NASA Mission Critical Workforce, Infrastructure, and Technology, agency officials said contracting mechanisms used with various companies to support work on cryogenic fluid management technologies limit the agency’s ability to access data from those efforts.
Cryogenic fluid management involves technologies needed for the in-space storage and transfer of propellants such as liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. It is essential for vehicles ranging from lunar landers that Blue Origin and SpaceX are developing for NASA’s Human Landing System (HLS) program to future nuclear thermal propulsion systems that use liquid hydrogen as a propellant.
John Dankanich, in-space transportation system capability lead at NASA, said in a presentation at the meeting that several companies are working on NASA-funded projects to mature cryogenic fluid management technologies, either as directly part of HLS work or through separate Tipping Point space technology awards. One problem, he said, is getting access to data needed to better understand how those technologies interact with other systems.
“We want to be able to test different configurations. The issue that we have is the different procurement mechanisms that we’ve been using with our industry partnerships,” he said. “We have a real challenge getting telemetry and the data that we want for model validation without having data restrictions on the overall system design and performance.”
He said NASA wants to make those improved models available to the broader community, but that is restricted by limited data rights in those various agreements with companies working on the technology.
“In some cases we can’t even force them to instrument the systems in the way we need them instrumented to get the data that we would need to validate,” he said. When NASA can get data, he said data rights restrictions may limit its ability to distribute it to others for use in validating models.
That was particularly true for the HLS contracts, he said, where cryogenic fluid management is a means to an end, transporting astronauts to and from the lunar surface using a services contract. “The service is to deliver crew to the moon. It’s not to deliver a cryogenic fluid management system that we can validate,” he said.
NASA does have several Tipping Point awards for cryogenic fluid management development, but he said those awards, done as Space Act Agreements, limit how NASA can access data and direct work on those projects. “We don’t have a lot of opportunities to force specific design changes beyond what they had originally proposed,” he said. “There are very few opportunities for us to essentially force them to provide the telemetry and instrumentation that we may want to have.”
Under Space Act Agreements, explained Mike Green of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, NASA pays companies for delivering milestones. “It’s a balancing act,” he said, allowing companies to invest more of their money into these agreements. “We’ll see how it plays out.”
Cryogenic fluid management is essential to SpaceX’s Starship lunar lander effort, which requires establishing a propellant depot in low Earth orbit with liquid oxygen and methane that will be transferred to the Starship lander before it goes to the moon.
“SpaceX has work to do just in terms of maturing their capability,” said Lakeisha Hawkins, assistant deputy associate administrator in NASA’s Moon to Mars program office, earlier in the committee meeting. “There’s also work to be done in cryo management,” such as refueling and managing boiloff of propellants.
The slides accompanying her presentation stated that SpaceX “will include a propellant transfer demonstration” on the third Starship test flight, which the company is “moving quickly” towards. She did not discuss that work, but that’s believed to refer to the transfer of propellants from one tank to another within the Starship vehicle, not from one Starship to another.
Those slides also mentioned that SpaceX had “completed” the second Starship test flight recently, a term that one committee member took issue with. “I’m sure that some people would think that the word ‘completed’ should at least have quotation marks around it because of the anomaly that took place,” said retired Air Force general Lester Lyles.
Hawkins did not provide any updates on the investigation into that Nov. 18 launch, but instead described SpaceX’s “hardware-rich” approach to flight testing and noted that the flight successfully achieved liftoff and stage separation. “And then, of course, more learning continues.”