Enlarge /. Illustration of the SpaceX Dragon XL as used by the second stage of the Falcon Heavy in high earth orbit on the way to the gateway in moon orbit.
Last summer, NASA called on companies that were ready to deliver cargo to a planned station in orbit around the moon, the Lunar Gateway. On Friday, NASA announced that the first award under this "Gateway Logistics" contract will go to SpaceX.
The company has proposed to deliver a modified version of its Dragon spacecraft called the Dragon XL to the Lunar Gateway with its Falcon Heavy rocket. After delivering cargo, experiments, and other supplies, the spaceship would have to stay docked at the gateway for a year before it can be "autonomously" disposed of.
"This award is another important part of our plan to return to the moon sustainably," said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine in a press release. "The gateway is the cornerstone of Artemis' long-term architecture, and this commercial cargo capacity in space is integrating another American industrial partner into our plans for human lunar exploration to prepare for a future mission to Mars."
NASA has provided a total of $ 7 billion to supply logistics over a 12-15 year period and is expected to select at least one other company for commercial delivery services. A total of two missions are guaranteed for each selected company. In fact, this contract is likely worth a few billion dollars for SpaceX, although most of the funding is unlikely to come before the first missions in the mid-2020s.
For NASA, SpaceX is the safest choice under this contract. Both the Falcon Heavy cargo ship and the Dragon cargo ship have flown multiple missions. In addition, SpaceX has been working with NASA to develop space cargo capacity since 2006, with the launch of the Space Agency's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program.
The contract is remarkable because it appears to confirm NASA's commitment to the Lunar Gateway at a time when there are questions about its future.
After hiring at the end of 2019, Doug Loverro, the agency's new head of human space, has re-evaluated the way NASA's Artemis program will bring astronauts back to the moon. His only mandate is to do this by 2024, so he's been looking for the most direct route to the lunar surface. Loverro said that it would not include the gateway that was previously viewed as a base for crews and a lander that would reach to the surface of the moon.
NASA has announced that it will continue to build the gateway, which is supported by international partners and is seen as a potential opportunity to add more commercial companies such as SpaceX and several others to the Artemis program. With the award of this order, NASA signals that it is still interesting to build the gateway in the mid-2020s. Before questions about the future of the gateway came up, the agency had previously placed orders for two elements of the gateway, a power and drive element and a small living space module.
The reality is that the Space Agency's Artemis program is still very fluid. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were questions as to whether Congress would support this Trump administration's call for more NASA funding in the billions in 2021. With this award, however, NASA and its administrator seem to want to make it clear that they are committed to both commercial space and a sustainable return to the moon.