NASA just announced its plans to invest in mid-air spacecraft retrieval and cryogenics.
Due in part to government budget cuts, NASA decided to privatize many projects such as the International Space Station. Part of this new funding initiative included partnerships with private companies, as well.
These public-private partnerships enabled NASA to invest around $44-million USD in two key fields: mid-air spacecraft retrieval and cryogenics. In addition, they benefit things such as lander efficiency and sustainability.
Which groups are getting what amounts of money and why?
Cryogenics and Sustainability Take Center Stage
NASA already plans to use lasers in space to create the coldest temperatures it can. However, this new exploration into cryotechnology differs from creating cold.
The cryogenic fluid project relates to missions with longer durations in a move toward what NASA calls “tipping point technologies.” In an effort to support research in these fields, NASA awarded several companies grant rounds including three multi-million dollar rounds.
- Blue Origin developing a cryogenic fluid management system — $13-million USD
- Astrobotic Technology developing a sensor suite for Terrain Relative Navigation — $10-million USD
- United Launch Alliance developing three separate projects — $13.9-million USD
Unlike the others, United Launch Alliance splits their funding between three projects. The bulk (around $10-million USD) goes toward their cryogenic vehicle fluid management system. This could improve and simplify lunar landers moving forward.
Other projects include cryogenic adjacent tech and mid-air retrieval capabilities for objects up to 8,000 pounds. This might relate to a vehicle coming back to Earth out of orbital velocity. After all, SpaceX has been able to outpace NASA on the reusability front.
Boots on the Ground and Fewer Rockets in the Ocean
Overall, the push for these two technologies boils down to two objectives for NASA.
The first: getting boots on the ground more easily — be those actual people in boots or metaphorical “boots” such as rovers and landers — the second: more sustainable space exploration practices.
Some of the other investments went to companies working on ancillary initiatives. These include things like deep space engines, encapsulated launch shrouds using cryotechnology, and expanded propulsion capabilities with dual mode power processing units.