Blue Moon
Blue Origin's proposed Blue Moon system could land payloads weighing up to several tons on the surface of the moon. Credit: Blue Origin

LOGAN, Utah — NASA announced more than 20 contracts valued at $55 million Aug. 8 intended to develop commercial technologies for space exploration as well as study future markets for commercial activities in low Earth orbit.

In one set of awards, NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate announced 10 awards to six companies as part of the agency’s “Tipping Point” initiative to support development of technologies on the verge of being ready for commercial applications. The total value of the contracts is $44 million, pending finalization of the contracts.

A major area of emphasis in the awards involved lunar lander systems. Blue Origin won two contracts with a total value of $13 million, one to develop cryogenic propulsion systems for a lunar lander and another to develop advanced sensors for landing on the lunar surface. Both technologies will be tested on the company’s New Shepard suborbital vehicle.

Astrobotic, a company developing commercial lunar landers, won a $10 million award to develop a technology called Terrain Relative Navigation to be used for accurate landings on the moon or other planetary bodies. Frontier Aerospace, which is providing the engines used on Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander, won a separate $1.9 million contract to demonstrate its main engine on Peregrine’s first flight in 2020.

United Launch Alliance won three contracts, valued at $13.9 million, for launch vehicle technologies. Two of the awards, for testing of an integrated vehicle fluids flight demonstration and cryogenic propellant management, are key for the company’s Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage that will be developed for later versions of its Vulcan launch vehicle. A third will test a mid-air retrieval system that will be combined with a NASA inflatable decelerator project.

Space Systems Loral won two $2 million contracts for testing of in-space electric propulsion technologies, including one to transfer xenon from one spacecraft to another as part of satellite servicing efforts. Paragon Space Development Corporation received a $1.6 million award to develop a technology called Cryogenic Encapsulating Launch Shroud and Insulated Upper Stage (CELSIUS) intended to insulate and protect cryogenic upper stages in space.

The technologies all fall into three “strategic thrust areas,” said Jim Reuter, NASA associate administrator of space technology, in an Aug. 8 call with reporters. They include expanding utilization of space, enabling safe and efficient transportation into and through space, and increasing access to planetary surfaces.

NASA selected the 10 awards from about 90 submissions based in part if NASA deemed them to be at a “tipping point” in its development. “For this solicitation, a technology is considered at a tipping point if an investment in a demonstration of its capabilities will result in a significant advancement of the technology’s maturation” as well as a “high likelihood” of being incorporated in a future commercial space product or service, he said.

That technology, he said, has applications for NASA’s exploration missions as well. “NASA is going back to the moon and on to Mars in a measured, sustainable way,” he said. “It is American innovation that will lead the way.”

The awards are structured as public-private partnerships, with the companies required to contribute at least 25 percent of the total cost of each project. “They often do much more than that,” Reuter said.

In a separate announcement Aug. 8, NASA awarded contracts with a total value of $11 million to 13 companies to study the future of commercial human spaceflight in low Earth orbit. The contracts, worth up to $1 million each, cover studies to be completed by December.

The studies, announced earlier this year, will both assess the broad prospects for commercial human activities in LEO as well as specific concepts for companies interested in either commercializing the International Space Station or developing private space stations. Those studies will support NASA’s planning for a potential end of federal funding of the ISS, as the administration proposed in its fiscal year 2019 budget request.

“We’re excited to receive this input from the commercial market and aerospace experts to help shape a future thriving space economy in which companies contract with each other to conduct research and activities in low Earth orbit,” said Sam Scimemi, director of the ISS division at NASA Headquarters, in an agency statement.

The study contracts went to a mix of commercial spaceflight, other aerospace, and consulting companies: Axiom Space, Bigelow Aerospace, Blue Origin, Boeing, Deloitte, KBRwyle, Lockheed Martin, McKinsey and Company, NanoRacks, Northrop Grumman, Sierra Nevada, Space Adventures and Space Systems Loral.

While Axiom was one of the companies that received a contract, its chief executive, Michael Suffredini, was skeptical of the importance for them in an interview in June. Suffredini, former ISS program manager at NASA, said the agency should, at the very least, solicit proposals for commercial use of one of the ports on the ISS in parallel with the studies, rather than waiting to receive and review the studies.

“If there’s an urgency in the government at all to allow ISS to retire gracefully, we need to pick up the pace on the port award,” he said, noting that NASA issued a request for information from potential port users in 2016, but didn’t go through with a competition as expected at the time.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...