Illustration of the SpaceX Dragon XL as it is deployed from the Falcon Heavy's second stage in high Earth orbit on its way to the Gateway in lunar orbit.
Enlarge / Illustration of the SpaceX Dragon XL as it is deployed from the Falcon Heavy’s second stage in high Earth orbit on its way to the Gateway in lunar orbit.

SpaceX

Last summer, NASA put out a call for companies who would be willing to deliver cargo to a proposed station in orbit around the Moon, called the Lunar Gateway. On Friday, NASA announced that the first award under this “Gateway Logistics” contract would go to SpaceX.

The company has proposed using its Falcon Heavy rocket to deliver a modified version of its Dragon spacecraft, called Dragon XL, to the Lunar Gateway. After delivering cargo, experiments and other supplies, the spacecraft would be required to remain docked at the Gateway for a year before “autonomous” disposal.

“This contract award is another critical piece of our plan to return to the Moon sustainably,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a news release. “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.”

NASA has set aside a total of $7 billion over a period of 12 to 15 years for logistics supply and is expected to eventually select at least one more company for commercial delivery services. Each selected company is guaranteed a total of two missions. In effect, this contract is likely worth a few billion dollars to SpaceX, although the bulk of the funding probably will not come before the first missions fly in the mid-2020s.

For NASA, SpaceX represents the safest choice under this contract. Both its Falcon Heavy and Dragon cargo spacecraft have flown multiple missions. Moreover, SpaceX has worked with NASA on developing a cargo capability to space since 2006, with the beginning of the space agency’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program.

New questions

The contract is notable because it appears to reaffirm NASA’s commitment to the Lunar Gateway at a time when there are questions about its future.

After hiring on in late 2019, the agency’s new head of human spaceflight, Doug Loverro, has been reassessing the path by which NASA’s Artemis Program will return astronauts to the Moon. His single mandate is to do so by 2024, so he has been looking for the most direct path to the lunar surface. Loverro has said that would not include the Gateway, which was previously seen as a staging point for crews and a lander that would go down to the surface of the Moon.

NASA has said it still plans to build the Gateway, which is supported by international partners and seen as a potential way to bring more commercial companies—such as SpaceX and several others—into the Artemis Program. By awarding this contract now, NASA is signaling that it is still interesting in building the Gateway in the mid-2020s. Before questions about the Gateway’s future arose, the agency has previously awarded contracts for two elements of the Gateway, a power and propulsion element and a small habitat module.

The reality is that the space agency’s Artemis Program is still very much in flux. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were questions about whether Congress would support this Trump Administration’s request for billions of dollars of more NASA funding in the fiscal year 2021 budget. However, with this award, NASA and its administrator seem to want to make clear that they are committed both to commercial space and a sustainable return to the Moon.