A space tug is a type of spacecraft used to transfer spaceborne cargo from one orbit to another orbit with different energy characteristics. An example would be moving a spacecraft from a low Earth orbit (LEO) to a higher-energy orbit like a geostationary transfer orbit, a lunar transfer, or an escape trajectory.
The term is often used to refer to reusable, space-based vehicles. Some previously proposed or built space tugs include the NASA 1970s STS proposal or the proposed Russian Parom, and has sometimes been used to refer to expendable upper stages, such as Fregat, or Spaceflight Industries Sherpa.
The space tug was first envisioned in the post-World War II era as a support vehicle for a permanent, Earth-orbiting space station. It was used by science fiction writer Murray Leinster as the title of a novel published in 1953 as the sequel to Space Platform, another novel about such a space station. 
A reusable space tug was studied by NASA in the late 60s and early 70s as part of a reusable Space Transportation System (STS). This consisted of a basic propulsion module, to which a crew module or other payload could be attached. Optional landing legs could be added to land payloads on the surface of the Moon. This, along with all other elements of STS except the Space Shuttle, was never funded after cutbacks to NASA's budget during the 1970s in the wake of the Apollo program.
NASA studied another space tug design, termed the Orbital Maneuvering Vehicle (OMV), along with its plans for Space Station Freedom. The OMV's role would have been a reusable space vehicle that would retrieve satellites, such as Hubble, and bring them to Freedom for repair or retrieval, or to service uncrewed orbital platforms. In 1984, the Orbital Maneuvering Vehicle (OMV) preliminary design studies were initiated through a competitive award process with systems studies conducted by TRW, Martin Marietta Aerospace, and LTV Corporation.
The Russian RKK Energia corporation proposed a space tug named Parom in 2005 which could be used to ferry both the proposed Kliper crew vehicle or uncrewed cargo and fuel resupply modules to ISS. Keeping the tug in space would have allowed for a less massive Kliper, enabling launch on a smaller booster than the original Kliper design.
Spaceflight Inc. developed SHERPA, which builds upon the capabilities of the Spaceflight Secondary Payload System (SSPS) by incorporating propulsion and power generation subsystems, which creates a propulsive tug dedicated to maneuvering to an optimal orbit to place secondary and hosted payloads. The maiden flight of two separate unpropelled variants of the dispenser was in December 2018 on a Falcon 9 rocket. This flight deployed 64 small satellites from 17 countries.
The VASIMR electric plasma rocket could be used to power a high-efficiency space tug, using only 9 tons of Argon propellant to make a round trip to the Moon, delivering 34 tons of cargo from Low Earth Orbit to low lunar orbit. As of 2014[update], Ad Astra Rocket Company had put forward a concept proposal to utilize the technology to make a space tug.[needs update]
Indian Space Research Organisation has built an upper stage called PAM-G (Payload Assist Module for GSLV) capable of pushing payloads directly to MEO or GEO orbits from low Earth orbits. PAM-G is powered by hypergolic liquid motor with restart capability, derived from PSLV's fourth stage. As of 2013, ISRO has realized the structure, control systems, and motors of PAM-G and has conducted hot tests. PAM-G would form the fourth stage of GSLV Mk2C launch vehicle, sitting on top of GSLV's cryogenic third stage.
Lockheed Martin made a concept proposal to NASA in 2015 for a design called the Jupiter space tug, to be based on the designs of two earlier Lockheed Martin spacecraft—Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission and the Juno—as well as a robotic arm from MDA derived from technology used on Canadarm, the robotic arm technology previously used on the Space Shuttle. In addition to the Jupiter space tug itself, the Lockheed concept included the use of a new 4.4 m (14 ft)-diameter cargo transport module called Exoliner for carrying cargo to the ISS. Exoliner is based on the earlier (2000s) ESA-developed Automated Transfer Vehicle, and was to be jointly developed with Thales Alenia Space. In the event, NASA did not agree to fund the Jupiter development, and Lockheed Martin is not developing the tug with private capital.
In 2011 ViviSat a joint project between U.S. Space and ATK proposed the Mission Extension Vehicle. In 2016 ViviSat was dissolved when U.S. Space declared bankruptcy and ATK merged with Orbital Science Corporation to form Orbital ATK. In 2017 Orbital ATK got the go ahead from the FCC to begin development of the spacecraft with new partner Northrup Grumman who was developing a tug of their own. In June 2018, both companies pooled their resources and merged to form a new company called Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems. On 9 October 2019 the first of these tugs MEV-1 was launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on a Proton-M rocket. In February 2020, MEV-1 successfully docked with Intelsat 901 and returned it to geosynchronous orbit, allowing it to continue operating 4 years past its service life. MEV-1 will continue to maintain this position for a 5-year period, after which it will move the satellite back into a graveyard orbit for retirement. MEV-2 was launched 15 August 2020 with Galaxy 30 on an Ariane 5 to perform a similar maneuver with Intelsat-1002.
One of NASA's Artemis Program's proposed lunar lander's is a partially reusable three stage design. One of its main elements would a transfer stage which would move the lander from the Lunar Gateway's orbit to a low lunar orbit. Future versions should be able to return to the Gateway for refueling and reuse with another lander. Northrop Grumman has proposed building this transfer stage based on its Cygnus spacecraft. NASA chose to select a different approach in April 2021.
Designed by Airbus, the Moon Cruiser is a conceptual lunar logistics vehicle based on the ATV and ESM that is proposed to be used to support the international Lunar Gateway. If funded, it would make up a part of ESA's contribution to the Lunar Gateway program. As of January 2020, it was in the early design process. Planned to be launched on the Ariane 6—with the capability to also be launched with US heavy launchers: 1:56 —the vehicle is intended to be able to refuel lunar landers and deliver cargo to the Gateway. It will also be used to deliver the European ESPRIT module to the Gateway no earlier than 2025. It has also been proposed to turn the vehicle into a transfer stage for a lunar lander. Concepts for a lander variant of the vehicle exist but have not received funding.
Momentus Space develops different space tug versions focusing on large velocity changes over 1 km/s. Demonstration missions of their Vigoride platform are planned for 2021 with key tests occurring through 2022. Momentus Space became widely known in October 2020 when it reached a SPAC investment deal with Stable Road Acquisition Corp valuing the combined entity at over $1 billion.
The British launch vehicle manufacturer shared details of their Skyrora Space Tug in 2021, revealing it to be usable as the third stage of their Skyrora XL rocket. The company shared a video of the Space Tug undergoing a live test in January 2021. As well as being able to move a satellite from one orbit to another the Space Tug can perform a number of in-space operations including space debris removal.
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Because a rising tide lifts all boats, NASA's flight rates during the 1960s had been buoyed powerfully by the agency's generous budgets. The OMB had no intention of granting such largesse during the 1970s.