NASA has hired SpaceX to carry cargo, research gear and other supplies to the Gateway space station the agency plans to build in lunar orbit, officials said Friday. The station will serve as a staging base for astronauts heading down to the moon's surface in the Artemis program.
Only two flights using SpaceX's upgraded Dragon XL cargo ship, launched atop Falcon Heavy rockets, were guaranteed in Friday's announcement, and the cost of those initial missions was not revealed. But NASA envisions a 15-year Gateway resupply program costing up to $7 billion, and multiple flights are expected as the project matures.
"Over the life of the contract, over the full 15-year period of performance, no matter how many providers we bring on, that's the current cap that we've estimated that we want to keep this under," Mark Wiese, Deep Space Logistics manager at the Kennedy Space Center, said in an interview with CBS News.
The Dragon XL spacecraft builds on the heritage of SpaceX's unpiloted Dragon cargo ships, which currently deliver supplies to the International Space Station, and the company's Crew Dragon spacecraft, designed to carry astronauts to and from the outpost starting later this year.
The unpiloted Dragon XL has no provisions for returning cargo to Earth, but it is larger than the current spacecraft — and because it will be protected by a payload fairing during launch, can carry experiments and other hardware on its hull. All told, it should be able to carry enough supplies and equipment to enable astronauts to stay aboard Gateway for up to 60 days at a stretch.
In a tweet, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said that by structuring the Gateway Logistics Contract as a public-private partnership, one in which NASA hires a delivery service and does not own or operate the hardware, "we are helping our partners expand the commercial space economy to the lunar vicinity."
SpaceX already held NASA contacts valued at $3.04 billion for 20 space station resupply flights, a milestone reached earlier this month, and another contract for an unspecified amount for at least six additional flights through 2024. The company also holds a $2.6 billion NASA contract to build and launch piloted Crew Dragon capsules to ferry astronauts to and from the lab complex.
"Returning to the moon and supporting future space exploration requires affordable delivery of significant amounts of cargo," SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said in the NASA statement. "SpaceX has been delivering scientific research and critical supplies to the (space station) since 2012, and we are honored to continue the work beyond Earth's orbit."
The Artemis program is aimed at returning astronauts to the lunar surface by the end of 2024, a target date set by the Trump administration. Astronaut crews will make the trip aboard Lockheed Martin-built Orion capsules launched to the moon by gargantuan Space Launch System — SLS — rockets being built by Boeing.
The first Artemis lunar landings are targeted for the moon's south polar region, where ice may be present in permanently shadowed craters. If found, ice could be used to generate water, air and oxygen-hydrogen rocket propellants, saving the cost of transportation from Earth. NASA bills the Artemis program as a stepping stone for eventual flights to Mars.
The 2024 moon landing target is considered an extreme challenge given the program's cost, technical demands and work slowdowns or stoppages caused by coronavirus, but NASA managers said they are pressing ahead and remain hopeful.
NASA envisions Orion crews docking at the Gateway station in a high orbit, and descending to the surface from there using commercial landers and ascent stages that will be assembled robotically. The Gateway would be able to change orbits, bringing virtually any lunar landing site within reach.
NASA earlier awarded a contract to Maxar Technologies to build the Gateway's solar-electric power and propulsion element and another contract to Northrop Grumman for a small habitation and logistics outpost, or HALO. The European Space Agency is expected to contribute an international habitation module, or IHAB, and the Canadian space agency is providing robotic arms.
NASA is expected to announce lunar lander contracts soon. The agency initially envisioned landers built remotely at Gateway by commercial vendors, but use of the lunar space station is not mandatory. Some companies favor landers that would launch atop the SLS booster and fly directly to the moon in an Apollo-like mission architecture.
But the Gateway remains a key element in the Artemis program, and the Dragon XL will "bring up all the crew's supplies, it'll bring up research, it'll most likely bring up the EVA suits," said Dan Hartman, Gateway program manager at the Johnson Space Center. "We want to kind of get it up there relatively close to when the actual Orion crew comes to the Gateway."
Current thinking calls for two astronauts to remain aboard the Gateway while two "get into the lander and go down to the surface of the moon," Hartman said.
"When we get the IHAB up there, we're going to have more (life support) capability," he added. "Initial missions are 30 days, but honestly, we believe with one logistics mission, the Orion crew there, you do your sortie down to the surface of the moon, we think we can double that duration. That's kind of what we're looking at right now."
The Dragon XL will initially dock at the HALO module shortly before the Artemis 3 mission, the first flight carrying astronauts to the lunar surface. Hartman said he expects the IHAB module to reach Gateway in the late 2025 timeframe.
"Obviously, we're early in this, but when you look at crew food, you look at water, you look at air makeup, gas, we certainly want to allocate a fair amount to research, including human research, that we can conduct while in that configuration," he said. "Having plenty of logistics and spares and those kinds of things, I don't know if you can have too much."