Despite the worsening coronavirus pandemic in the US, NASA is still looking ahead to its long-term goal of sending humans back to the lunar surface and is now asking SpaceX to start doing cargo runs to the Moon in the near future. NASA awarded the aerospace company with a new contract this afternoon, tasking SpaceX with sending cargo and supplies to a space station that NASA wants to build in the Moon’s orbit.
The new partnership is a big piece of NASA’s Artemis program, an initiative to land the first woman on the lunar surface by 2024. As part of the program, NASA has proposed building a space station in orbit around the Moon called the Gateway, where astronauts can work and train before heading down to the lunar soil. Just like the International Space Station, the Gateway is going to need supplies and science experiments from time to time, and now SpaceX is the first company charged with making that happen.
SpaceX has been supplying cargo to the International Space Station for almost a decade now, packing supplies inside the company’s Dragon capsule and launching them on top of a Falcon 9 rocket. To get supplies to the future Gateway, SpaceX is going to use some upgraded vehicles. The company is developing a new cargo vehicle called the Dragon XL, a cylindrical white spacecraft that can “carry more than 5 metric tons of cargo to Gateway in lunar orbit,” according to SpaceX. The supersized Dragon will launch on top of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, the much more powerful variant of the Falcon 9 that consists of three rocket cores strapped together.
Thanks to a fixed-price contract, SpaceX is on the hook to send multiple supply missions to the Gateway once the station is up and running. During each trip, the Dragon XL will stay docked to the Gateway for six to 12 months a time. The capsule will carry things like “sample collection materials and other items the crew may need on the Gateway and during their expeditions on the lunar surface,” according to NASA.
“Returning to the Moon and supporting future space exploration requires affordable delivery of significant amounts of cargo,” Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and COO, said in a statement. “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.”
SpaceX likely won’t be the only company tasked with sending supplies to the Gateway. Ultimately, NASA has the option to add multiple cargo suppliers and has allotted up to $7 billion to spend on cargo contracts for Artemis. Each contract guarantees that NASA will order at least two cargo missions per provider and NASA can request missions for up to 12 years.
While the contract is a big step for SpaceX and NASA, a lot of questions remain about the future of the Artemis program. For one, it’s unclear when the Gateway will actually be built. For the last few years, NASA officials have argued that building the Gateway is a crucial part of the Artemis program as it will help the space agency establish a sustainable presence around the Moon, rather than just send astronauts to the lunar surface to leave “flags and footprints.” But the administration challenged NASA to land its first Artemis astronauts by 2024, and with that deadline quickly approaching, the space agency may not have enough time to build the Gateway if it wants to get humans back to the Moon in the next four years. In fact, NASA’s newly appointed associate administrator for human exploration said that the Gateway is no longer critical for getting humans back to the Moon by 2024, according to Space News. That doesn’t mean it won’t get built, but it may not happen until after the first lunar landing deadline.
Meanwhile, it’s becoming increasingly unlikely that NASA will be able to meet its 2024 deadline at all, as the coronavirus pandemic has forced the agency to suspend production on some key programs. Notably, NASA shut down development of its next big rocket, the Space Launch System, which the agency plans to use to fly the first Artemis astronauts to the Moon.
As for SpaceX, the company is still operating during the pandemic as the company has been deemed mission essential by the state of California, due to its work with the Department of Defense. So it’s possible the company could still get a jump-start on the development of this new capsule. But it’s unclear when the Gateway will be ready to receive its first shipment.