NASA Armstrong Collaborates with ULA for Cryogenic Fluid and Mid-Air Retrieval Demos

EDWARDS, Calif. (NASA PR) — NASA is partnering with six U.S. companies to develop 10 “tipping point” technologies that have the potential to significantly benefit the commercial space economy and future NASA missions, including lunar lander and deep space rocket engine technologies.

NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California, will collaborate with United Launch Alliance (ULA) on two selected proposals.

ULA will receive $2 million for the Cryogenic Fluid Management Technology Demonstration proposal that focuses on enabling efficient and safe transportation in to and through space. NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama as well as Armstrong will support the project.

This cryogenic fluid management demonstration project seeks to prove that very low cryogenic fuel boil off is achievable and can support long duration missions. ULA will perform critical testing of the existing space launch vehicle Centaur Cryote-3 tank.

Another ULA award with Armstrong focuses on increasing access to planetary surfaces. The company will receive $1.9 million for a mid-air retrieval demonstration. This project will flight demonstrate mid-air retrieval capabilities up to 8,000 pounds, increasing current capabilities by a factor of four.

Paired with the NASA Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator (LOFTID) project, this effort will demonstrate mid-air retrieval on a vehicle returning to Earth from orbital velocity. The project will utilize an ocean-going ship capable of transporting a helicopter to the recovery zone and the demonstration will conclude with recovery of the LOFTID reentry vehicle.

The 10 tipping point selections are based on the agency’s third competitive Tipping Point solicitation, and have a combined total award value of approximately $44 million – a significant investment in the U.S. space industry. NASA announced the new partnerships on Aug. 8.

A technology is considered at a “tipping point” if investment in a ground or flight demonstration will result in significantly maturing the technology and improving the company’s ability to bring it to market.

“These awards focus on technology collaborations with the commercial space sector that leverage emerging markets and capabilities to meet NASA’s exploration goals,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “While these key technologies will support NASA’s science and human exploration missions in the future, these awards are yet another example of NASA’s commitment to our nation’s growing commercial space industry today.”

This solicitation targeted three Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) strategic technology focus areas: Expand Utilization of Space, Enable Efficient and Safe Transportation Into and Through Space, and Increase Access to Planetary Surfaces.

Through firm-fixed-price contracts, STMD will make milestone payments that cover as much as $10 million per award, over a performance period of up to 36 months. Each industry partner is required to contribute a minimum of 25 percent of total cost for each project.

STMD is responsible for developing the crosscutting, pioneering technologies and capabilities needed to achieve NASA missions. Projects resulting from the Tipping Point solicitation will enable public-private partnerships managed by programs within STMD.

For the full list of selected proposals organized by strategic technology focus areas, visit:

https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-announces-new-partnerships-to-develop-space-exploration-technologies

For more information about the Tipping Point solicitation, visit:

https://www.nasa.gov/directorates/spacetech/solicitations/tipping_points

  • Cameron

    Sounds like govt funding for ACES and SMART.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    I think the Confederate Air Force should restore a C-119 and sub-contract with LockMart to demonstrate what has been done before.

  • Michael Halpern

    how else would it get funded?

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Maybe ULA could pony up the money themselves?

  • Cameron

    Well, given that this is ULA, there is probably no way it would get funded without this, true. Frankly I don’t expect to ever see SMART operational.

  • Michael Halpern

    With the money that has gone to Boeing and LockMart?

  • ronsmytheiii

    SMART/now LOFTID is a NASA test program, and as such NASA retains the IP. ULA won an award to test air capturing associated with the LOFTID test mission. So ULA will own the air capture IP, but any other company will be free to use LOFTID IP (like anyone who wants to recover an upper stage!)

  • envy

    ULA doesn’t have any money, and the parents would rather have it funded by the USG than come out of their cut.

  • envy

    Govt funding for ACES and SMART is exactly what this is. And it’s exactly what NASA should be doing, instead of things like wasting 1.6 billion dollars restarting production of the expensive reusable RS-25 just so they can throw them in the ocean.

  • envy

    Has never been done on this scale: “flight demonstrate mid-air retrieval capabilities up to 8,000 pounds, increasing current capabilities by a factor of four.”

  • Steve Ksiazek

    I wonder how much a pair of BE-4 engines weigh ?

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Don’t diss my thoughts with statements of fact just because they’re true! 🙂

  • ThomasLMatula

    They upgraded to using a C-130 in the mid-sixties and there are thousands of those still flying.

  • ThomasLMatula

    With luck Elon Musk with get Mr. Stevens working right and once again show up NASA as being stuck in the 1960’s.

  • passinglurker

    Don’t you mean with luck everyone will succeed in their technological endeavors because all this tech is cool no matter who does it? Space isn’t a team sport why do you sound like you want them to trip over a brick?

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Well of course they would, would not any business man in modern America? It’s a measure of corruption that they get it paid for.

  • Vladislaw

    According to Tory Bruno, ULA is currently spending on ACES and will continue with or without NASA support ..

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Yeah, but C-130’s are not nearly as cool as C-119’s.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Think about it, they are trying to just recover the engines while SpaceX is already bringing the entire rocket back to fly again.

  • envy

    Yeah, ULA has claimed that since 2009 and IVF hasn’t flown yet.

  • envy

    It’s not corruption, as there is a public benefit to funding breakthrough technologies. NASA retains the IP and publishes the program results so other US companies can learn from it.

  • passinglurker

    I did think about it and it seems they both have an additional ~10million off the launch price if they work as advertised. Sure you feel like buck rogers with the spacex approach but its not like midair capture isn’t viable as well everything has its pros and cons and we really don’t know enough yet.

  • windbourne

    A technology is considered at a “tipping point” if investment in a ground or flight demonstration will result in significantly maturing the technology and improving the company’s ability to bring it to market.

    This is why NASA needs to set aside LOP-G and instead, focus on getting 2-4 private space stations going in LEO for 2 years and then sending the best one up to LOP-G. At the same time, focus on landing on the moon.

  • windbourne

    I hope so.

  • windbourne

    It is corruption, if there is no real reason for funding this.
    When we have the IP, and this actually stimulates the economy,OR drops our costs, then it is not corruption, but smart investments.

  • windbourne

    how sad.
    Musk works with NASA because he thinks highly of them.

  • envy

    The math doesn’t add up. A pair of BE-4 is reportedly about $16 million. A Vulcan launch is reportedly $90 to $100 million. Even if recovery and refurbishment is free, the launch is still $74-$84 million because they are throwing away an upper stage that costs about 4x as much as SpaceX’s.

    How does an $80 million rocket compete with a $50 million one? Maybe by launching bigger payloads, but there simply aren’t that many payloads that F9 can’t do with reuse (it’s already launched 7.8 t and 5.8 t satellites to sub-sync with booster landing. Is a better orbit worth the extra $30 million?

    Maybe they compete by dual-launching, adding SRBs to increase GTO performance. But that again diminishes the value of the main engines as a fraction of the total rocket cost, and increases fraction that is expended.

    And I don’t see any reason to believe that SpaceX cannot further lower their prices if needed to keep the heat on their competition. Their marginal cost for a used booster launch is probably only ~$20 million, so they could compete with PSLV (a rocket with 1/4th the payload) on a cost per launch (not per kg) basis.

  • envy

    That doesn’t change the fact that NASA’s collective mindset is largely stuck in the 60s.

  • passinglurker

    “Is a better orbit worth the extra $30 million?”
    ULA believes it is that’s literally thier entire business strategy right there. SpaceX has dominance right now because the price gap between falcon and atlas is huge, but get within say a 20 million dollar spitting distance and you might start courting customers with the services/performance/reputation they offer. Particularly those customers with heavy or high value payloads, and since its only partially reusable they don’t need as many flights a year to break even on reused hardware.

    SpaceX meanwhile has dev costs to recoup they will want as much profit margin as they can get for as long as they could get it, and ULA baiting away a half dozen customers a year isn’t worth killing your gains just to crush competition

  • envy

    Commercial customers don’t care about reputation, or even really about reliability (except as it affects insurance prices). They do like schedule assurance, but SpaceX has launched through the manifest backlog and is likely to have similar or better scheduling consistency than ULA going forward due to their higher flight rate.

    Vulcan will compete fine for NSS launches (as long as NG and Blue stay out of that business). But the commercial business is a lot tougher, and they will only compete with dual launch like Ariane 64.

    Now some of the LEO constellations, if they work out, might be able to take advantage of Vulcan’s larger fairings and heavier payload capacity. We’ll have to see about that. OneWeb has booked many different launchers (including LauncherOne and New Glenn), but not Vulcan so far.

  • passinglurker

    If they didn’t care then Russia would still be a relevant launch provider as they offer proton at virtually the same $/kg as falcon. And it’s not just the insurance the bureaucratic, logistical, and other payload handling headaches have also driven customers away from proton these are things ula advertises as being very painless when launching with them.

    There will be some cases where ula works better for a customer and many more cases where they won’t. Heck some might just throw ula a bone just to keep their options open if falcon gets grounded again and glenn never gets off the ground (again blue’s never launched orbital new vehicles have teething problems especially ones from new comer companies) all in all I see ula getting enough customers to survive and move forward while falcon and glenn fight over the bulk.

    Also cost savings from aces (mostly the part about eliminating expensive subsystems vs. Centaur V) will give them enough room to bring launch prices lower and keep up should spacex try to cut it’s profit margin any deeper.

  • envy

    Insurance on a Proton runs around 15% compared to 4-5% on Ariane, Falcon, or Atlas. That’s more than $20 million extra if you have a $200 million satellite, which makes Proton pretty much non-competitive on price (though not having to go to Kazakhstan for a launch is also a plus). Plus if you want the same low inclination GTO orbit you get with US and European launches, I think Proton needs Briz-M, which pushes the cost up again.

    And by the time Vulcan is flying, SpaceX is going to have the proven, reliable rocket and ULA will be the one starting out with an all-new design which will reset the reliability calculations. They wnat to fly a commercial payload on the first flight – that’s going to have to be deeply discounted to pay for the insurance.

    I don’t doubt that Vulcan will fly assuming it wins a EELV-2 spot, which seems likely. I do doubt that it will fly more than a handful of commercial customers over the next 5-10 years. F9/FH, Ariane 64, and eventually New Glenn will eat it’s lunch. And SMART reuse (which is now NET 2025) won’t change that.

  • passinglurker

    I don’t see how ariane is in any better of a position commercially…

    Anyway we’ll just have to wait and see ula’s reputation for never ever rud’ing could certainly help with their transition to a new launch vehicle so as long as the commercial payload market doesn’t bust in a way that hurts everyone they should be able to find their handful of commercial customers a year and quietly carry on.

  • envy

    Ariane is projecting to be slightly cheaper for a dual-launch at ~$105M instead of perhaps ~$120 million for a combined 12 t to GTO. That assumes the base Vulcan is ~$95 million and it needs 3x $8 million SRBs to dual launch a pair of 6 t satellites.

    Technically NASA CRS, crew, and LSP missions are “commercial”, as are some NSS launches. For example, Zuma and NROL-76 were commercially procured by Northrop and Ball aerospace, respectively. Starliner and perhaps Cargo Dream Chaser will stay with Vulcan when Atlas V is retired.

    If you count those USG missions as commercial, then sure, Vulcan will have commercial customers and will carry on. Those missions are more sensitive to reliability, require more custom services (which ULA is adept at providing) and are less sensitive to price than the rest of the commercial market, and they are largely captive to US providers. ULA can win 6-8 of those a year which with Vulcan’s smaller footprint will be enough to stay profitable.

    I just don’t see it making a dent in the GEO commsat market or the new constellations.

  • passinglurker

    hmm good points but consider this. Centaur V and especially ACES would be capable of reliably executing more complex deployments instead of splitting flights between multiple launches this could be a valuable service to constellations and maybe even dual launch. It will be interesting to see how the different approaches play out.

  • envy

    For GTO/GEO that is not a significant advantage; Proton, Falcon Heavy, Ariane 64 all offer direct to GEO plus upper stage disposal (3rd relight), which is about as complex as it gets for those missions.

    For constellations, the ability to change planes is nice, although current constellations do this with the satellites and not the LV. But after 1 or 2 plane changes, the payload hit is so bad that it’s more efficient to launch a whole different rocket.

    Falcon 9 did both an altitude change and plane change for GRACE-FO after dropping off the Iridium 6 payload. Rideshares like that are a potential advantage of ACES, but there aren’t many of them and most are small payloads that can use a cheaper rocket like PSLV.

    ACES will have a significant advantage for missions beyond the GEO belt, like supporting LOP-G or launching interplanetary probes, but I don’t envision any real advantages for LEO/GTO/GEO missions.