The collaboration between Elon Musk-led SpaceX and NASA is getting bigger and broader. The latest is a $3 million contract by NASA to expand on the technology concepts of spacecraft fuel refilling in low earth orbits pitched by SpaceX.

This is mainly for new generation spacecraft and rockets being developed for Mars and Lunar missions. 

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine recently had a joint press conference with SpaceX CEO Elon Musk where the impending SpaceX launch of Crew Dragon was discussed.

Bigger size and heavy payloads and hundreds of astronauts in the future will require orbital refueling as an important feature.

Musk is on record that SpaceX is developing the new technologies to dock two Starships together in orbit and transfer fuel to the one that will be going beyond low-Earth orbit, per SpaceX news.

According to Elon Musk, new generation spacecraft heading for the moon and other longer voyages like Mars the mission will need such mode of refueling in the low orbit around Earth.

Under the $3M contract, SpaceX will work with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) to build “cryogenic fluid couplers.” They are special nozzles Starship will need to refuel in orbit.

According to NASA news, SpaceX will work with NASA to build those nozzles Starship will use to mate and refuel in orbit.

The prototype of Starship being developed by SpaceX in Texas involves launching a stainless steel crewed craft atop a Super Heavy booster. Refueling that rocket around Earth orbit will be a high priority.

NASA announced a Tipping Point funding on September 27th with a corpus of $43.2 million that will be distributed among 14 companies.

The fund is focused on advancing “important technologies necessary for the sustained exploration of the Moon and Mars.”

Mars colonization plans intensified after the flow of data from Mars rovers sent by NASA.

In addition to SpaceX, Amazon Blue Origin also received funding.  Fuel feed is required for Super Heavy as well as it must perform booster landings and needs propellant for a boost back and landing burns.

Main challenge

Orbital refueling has never been tested on a bigger scale, speed, or reliability. That calls for Starship needing numerous in-orbit refuelings.

The transfer of fuel will have to be in the scale of at least 150 metric tons (330,000 lb) of liquid oxygen and methane in microgravity conditions at the LEO.

SpaceX had Space Act Agreements with NASA to develop orbital propellant transfer technology. The September 27th award expands that relationship with direct funding from NASA.