NASA has awarded SpaceX with a resupply contract for the Lunar Gateway. Built on the foundations of the successful agreement to resupply the ISS, SpaceX will employ its Falcon Heavy rocket to launch a new spacecraft called the Dragon XL to the lunar outpost under a Gateway Logistics Services (GLS) contract.
NASA’s Lunar Gateway is a key element in the Agency’s Artemis Program, which will eventually see humans return to the surface of the Moon.
Although the Gateway’s role with the first lunar landing – set for 2024 – is currently having its timeline re-evaluated to a schedule that won’t see it involved with the 2024 mission, NASA has again reaffirmed its commitment to the outpost, which was further solidified with the announcement of a GLS contract on Friday.
While SpaceX has a long history of launch resupply missions to the International Space Station, first with the Cargo Dragon and soon with its Dragon 2/Cargo version of it Crew Dragon, the GLS contract has revealed a new variant of the spacecraft.
Named the Dragon XL, this large cargo vehicle – which looks more like a large Cygnus XL vehicle than a traditional Dragon design – will be launched by SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket. SpaceX notes that the vehicle will be optimized to carry more than five metric tons of cargo to Gateway in lunar orbit.
“Returning to the Moon and supporting future space exploration requires affordable delivery of significant amounts of cargo,” said SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell. “Through our partnership with NASA, SpaceX has been delivering scientific research and critical supplies to the International Space Station since 2012, and we are honored to continue the work beyond Earth’s orbit and carry Artemis cargo to Gateway.”
Akin to Dragon missions to the ISS, Dragon XL will deliver critical pressurized and unpressurized cargo, science experiments and supplies to the Gateway. However, per the mission brief of missions to the Moon, its cargo will also include sample collection materials and other items the crew may need on the Gateway and during their expeditions on the lunar surface.
“This is an exciting new chapter for human exploration,” added Mark Wiese, Deep Space Logistics manager at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “We are bringing the innovative thinking of commercial industry into our supply chain and helping ensure we’re able to support crews preparing for lunar surface expeditions by delivering the supplies they need ahead of time.”
Unlike their ISS colleagues, the GLS cargo spacecraft will aim to stay at the Gateway for a long duration mission of six to 12 months at a time.
Although SpaceX is the first company to receive a GLS contract award, more companies are bidding to provide what will be a fleet of resupply vehicles to the Gateway, an important requirement to allow for dissimilar redundancy – an important lesson learned during the challenge of keeping the ISS supplied.
NASA notes these firm-fixed price, indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity contracts for logistics services guarantee two missions per logistics services provider with a maximum total value of $7 billion across all contracts as additional missions are needed.
“This contract award is another critical piece of our plan to return to the Moon sustainably,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “The Gateway is the cornerstone of the long-term Artemis architecture and this deep space commercial cargo capability integrates yet another American industry partner into our plans for human exploration at the Moon in preparation for a future mission to Mars.”
The birth of the Gateway will see start with the construction of two of the station’s mission-essential modules – the Power and Propulsion Element (PPE) and the Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO) – have been contracted to Maxar Technologies and Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, respectively.
Both modules are expected to launch on commercially-procured launch vehicles, ironically with SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy understood to be leading the way in during these evaluations.
Like the ISS, the Gateway will be an international effort with numerous agencies. All of the agencies involved with adding elements to the outpost have ISS partner experience.
“We’re making significant progress moving from our concept of the Gateway to reality,” said Dan Hartman, Gateway program manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
“Bringing a logistics provider onboard ensures we can transport all the critical supplies we need for the Gateway and on the lunar surface to do research and technology demonstrations in space that we can’t do anywhere else. We also anticipate performing a variety of research on and within the logistics module.”
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