NASA ‘Game-Changing’ Space Propellant Tank To Stay Grounded For Now

by Elizabeth Howell on March 20, 2014

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As of 2014, NASA and Boeing are developing a propellant tank made of composite materials to hold cryogenic (low-temperature) gases in space. Initially slated for a 2018 test flight, NASA's 2015 budget will keep these tanks on the ground for the foreseeable future. Credit: NASA/MSFC/Emmett Given

As of 2014, NASA and Boeing are developing a propellant tank made of composite materials to hold cryogenic (low-temperature) gases in space. Initially slated for a 2018 test flight, NASA’s 2015 budget will keep these tanks on the ground for the foreseeable future. Credit: NASA/MSFC/Emmett Given

A lighter and stronger “game-changing” tank that could have flown in space in a few years will be tested on the ground only, at least for now, according to the NASA budget and a few reports.

Last year, the agency conducted ground tests on a composite propellant tank intended to be better than its heavier counterparts, saving on launch costs. At the time, NASA said it was aiming to test this on a demonstration flight in 2018, but the new budget request says testing will stay grounded.

“Cryogenic Propellant Storage and Transfer will reformulate from a flight demonstration mission into a series of large-scale ground demonstrations supportive of future exploration propulsion needs and upgraded versions of SLS,” the agency stated, which could leave the door open for future tests in space.

The information is mentioned on Page 336 of the 713-page budget request document NASA released earlier this month. The budget is not finalized and is subject to approval from Congress. More high-profile cuts include the SOFIA airborne telescope and the Opportunity Mars rover mission.

The cryogenic change was mentioned in a few news reports, and then highlighted in a press release today (Thursday) from an advocacy group called the Space Development Steering Committee, who says these tanks would have been good for space-based refueling stations.

“Instead of trying out technologies designed for space where they count — in space — space gas station technologies are now going to be tested down here on Earth, where we already know how to make them function,” SDSC’s press release read. “Down here where we do not face the challenges of weightlessness and vacuum.  Down here where it’s useless.”

The SDSC includes the heads of the National Space Society, the Space Frontier Foundation, and the Mars Society, plus past astronauts and former NASA employees (among others). In November, the committee released an unfunded gas-tanks-in-space proposal to fuel missions to Mars.

About 

Elizabeth Howell is the senior writer at Universe Today. She also works for Space.com, Space Exploration Network, the NASA Lunar Science Institute, NASA Astrobiology Magazine and LiveScience, among others. Career highlights include watching three shuttle launches, and going on a two-week simulated Mars expedition in rural Utah. You can follow her on Twitter @howellspace or contact her at her website.

catseye March 20, 2014 at 5:16 PM

40% weight savings is huge! Too big an advantage to shelf due to bean counters.
The new NASA budget is horrific. SOFIA is another victim as well.

Greg B March 20, 2014 at 8:39 PM

I read that they are looking at using this composite fuel tank tech for an upgrade to the upper stage of the SLS, so that’s some silver lining at least.

Aqua4U March 20, 2014 at 10:40 PM

Lockheed’s (Skunk Works) inability to successfully fabricate a lightweight cryogenic tank meant the end of the X-33 or Venture Star program. THAT was a real bummer and fiasco driven by poor engineering management?

40% weight savings sounds good. Hope it works as planned….

Dav_Daddy March 21, 2014 at 12:17 AM

The govt should contract out everything except for the big “flagship” type missions as well as maybe the Earth observation type should be all NASA is responsible for.

The whole procurement process needs to be changed where failure to deliver as promised carries some serious penalties. Currently when a project is behind, late or off schedule the consequence is a maybe a harshly worded memo and another check. This isn’t unique to NASA by any means but it needs to change sooner than later and NASA is a good place to start.

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