NASA has selected SpaceX to transport supplies to the Lunar Gateway

Artist's concept of the Dragon XL cargo spacecraft after separating from the Falcon Heavy rocket's second stage (Image courtesy SpaceX)
Artist’s concept of the Dragon XL cargo spacecraft after separating from the Falcon Heavy rocket’s second stage (Image courtesy SpaceX)

NASA has announced that it has selected SpaceX as the first supplier in the Gateway Logistics Services contract to transport cargo, experiments and other supplies to the Lunar Gateway, part of the Artemis program that aims to bring astronauts back to the Moon. At least two missions will be carried out with the Dragon XL cargo spacecraft, a new variant of the Dragon 2 cargo optimized to carry over 5 metric tons of cargo to the Moon’s orbit. The timeline for these missions isn’t clear due to the NASA’s changes of plans, as recently the agency decided to skip the use of the Lunar Gateway for the mission that’s supposed to take place by 2024 and use it in the following years.

NASA planned to return to the Moon by 2028 but the Trump administration brought forward the deadline to 2024, a decision that raised many doubts regarding its feasibility. The Orion spacecraft designed for missions beyond the Earth’s orbit is more or less ready but has never been tested in its complete configuration. The real sore point is the SLS super rocket, whose development has been lagging behind for years with costs that went highly overbudget. As if that weren’t enough, according to the latest assessments, the costs for launch could exceed $1 billion, even higher than those of the Saturn V rocket used for the Apollo program, which was abandoned because of the very high costs.

The Artemis program includes the Lunar Gateway, which is considered essential by NASA to achieve a sustainable presence of humans on the Moon. This small space station in lunar orbit has the advantage that at least some of its components can be put into orbit by other suppliers and launched with existing rockets. Despite this, the timeline for its assembly seem now too tight, and NASA decided that at least for the first Artemis mission the Lunar Gateway will not be used. In essence, the first Artemis mission will be carried out like the Apollo Moon missions. However, NASA continues to develop the project and has a budget of $7 billions for the Gateway Logistics Services contract which requires requests for services for a period of up to 12 years with an execution period up to 15 years.

SpaceX just finished its first supply contract at the International Space Station, and this year its second contract is scheduled to begin, which will see the debut of the Dragon 2 cargo spacecraft. For the supplies to the Lunar Gateway, a new variant called Dragon XL has been announced, optimized to carry over 5 metric tons to the lunar orbit. The Falcon Heavy rocket will be used for the launches, the most powerful rocket currently in operation, needed to give the spacecraft a push strong enough to get out of the Earth’s orbit.

The Dragon XL cargo spacecraft will dock directly with the Lunar Gateway as the Dragon 2 will do with the International Space Station, but the Dragon XL will be able to spend much longer periods in orbit, between 6 and 12 months at a time. For now SpaceX has released only the artist’s concept of this new version of the Dragon cargo spacecraft and very little information.

Despite the changes in the Artemis program, NASA shows that the Lunar Gateway continues to be a part of it. The Covid-19 pandemic is causing further delays in its developments and it will take months before we have a new timeline for its assembly. It’s more than ever a mid-long term project but the choice of a partner for supply missions indicates that the development continues. NASA’s policy is to have multiple partners to prevent potential problems for one of them from stopping the operations so it will be interesting to see which companies could work side by side with SpaceX in this type of service.

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