Despite the worsening of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S., NASA is still looking forward to its long-term goal of sending people back to the lunar surface and is now asking SpaceX to conduct cargo runs to the moon in the near future. NASA awarded the aerospace company a new contract this afternoon, Charge SpaceX with shipping cargo and supplies to a space station that NASA plans to build in the orbit of the moon.
The new partnership is a big part 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 descending to the lunar bottom. Like the International Space Station, the Gateway needs supplies and scientific experiments from time to time, and now SpaceX is the first company to do so.
SpaceX has been delivering cargo to the International Space Station for nearly a decade, packing supplies into the company’s Dragon capsule and launching it on top of a Falcon 9 rocket. To get supplies for the future gateway, SpaceX will be using 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 tons of cargo in orbit around the moon to Gateway,” said 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 attached together.
Thanks to a fixed-price contract, SpaceX is on the hook to send multiple supply missions to the gateway once the station is operational. The Dragon XL remains connected to the gateway for six to 12 months at a time on each trip. The capsule will contain things like “material for collecting samples and other items the crew will need at the gateway and on their lunar surface expeditions,” NASA said.
“Returning to the moon and supporting future space exploration requires an affordable delivery of significant amounts of cargo,” said Gwynne Shotwell, president and COO of SpaceX, in a statement. “Through our partnership with NASA, SpaceX has been providing scientific research and critical supplies to the International Space Station since 2012, and we are honored to continue work beyond Earth orbit and transport Artemis cargo to Gateway.”
SpaceX probably isn’t the only company tasked with shipping supplies to the gateway. Ultimately, NASA has the ability to add multiple freight providers and allocated up to $ 7 billion in freight contracts for Artemis. Each contract guarantees that NASA orders at least two freight missions per provider and that NASA can request missions for up to 12 years.
While the contract is a big step for SpaceX and NASA, many questions remain about the future of the Artemis program. First, it is unclear when the gateway will actually be built. In recent years, NASA officials have argued that building the Gateway is a critical part of the Artemis program, as it will help the space agency establish a sustainable presence around the Moon, rather than just astronauts to the Moon’s surface send to leave ‘flags’ and footprints. But the government challenged NASA to land its first Artemis astronauts by 2024, and with that deadline fast approaching, the space agency may not have enough time to build the gateway if it wants to put humans back on the moon for the next four years to get. In fact, NASA’s newly appointed associate human exploration administrator said the gateway is no longer critical to getting people back to the moon by 2024, according to Space News. That doesn’t mean it’s not being built, but it can only happen after the first moon landing deadline.
Meanwhile, it is increasingly unlikely that NASA will be able to meet the 2024 deadline at all, as the coronavirus pandemic has forced the agency to suspend production of some key programs. Notably, NASA has halted the development of its next major rocket, the Space Launch System, with which the agency plans to fly the first Artemis astronauts to the moon.
As for SpaceX, the company is still active during the pandemic as the company is considered essential by the state of California for its partnership with the Department of Defense. It is therefore possible that the company can get off to a flying start with the development of this new capsule. But it is unclear when the gateway is ready to receive its first shipment.