SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft has delivered cargo to the International Space Station, but soon it will carry goods to an orbit higher than the International Space Station: the lunar Gateway.

Agency officials announced Friday (March 27) that NASA selected SpaceX as the first commercial company to be contracted to deliver cargo to the upcoming Gateway. The California-based aerospace company will deliver cargo to lunar orbit, including research experiments, astronaut supplies, sample collection hardware, and more.

NASA has plans of returning to the moon, and an essential piece of architecture in that quest is a small space station, dubbed Gateway, that will orbit the moon. Construction on the lunar outpost is scheduled to begin in 2022, as part of the space agency’s larger effort to establish a long-term presence on the moon.

The moon will be a testbed to help the agency and its partners develop and test the technology needed for human missions to Mars. And the Gateway is a big part of that. The small space station will serve as a command post for both crewed and uncrewed excursions to the lunar surface. It will also serve as a facility for research experiments.

Currently, SpaceX uses its Falcon 9 rocket to ferry cargo Dragon spacecraft to the space station. Each craft is capable of transporting around six metric tons (or 13,200 lbs.) to low-Earth orbit. After delivering its cargo, Dragon typically remains attached to the ISS for about a month before returning to Earth.

For the upcoming lunar missions, SpaceX proposed using its Falcon Heavy rocket to ferry a modified version of its Dragon spacecraft to the future outpost. The spacecraft, called Dragon XL, would deliver more than five metric tons of cargo, and the craft would stay docked for up to 12 months.

Currently, SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft delivers cargo to and from the space station. Credit: NASA

“Returning to the moon and supporting future space exploration requires affordable delivery of significant amounts of cargo,” said Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX president, and COO. “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 the Gateway.”

NASA first announced it was looking for companies to deliver cargo to the upcoming lunar station last summer; SpaceX is the first to be awarded a contract.

“This contract award is another crucial 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.”

SpaceX plans to use its Starship spacecraft to deliver robotic landers to the lunar surface. Credit: SpaceX

Although SpaceX is the first, NASA is expected to announce at least one more company that will deliver cargo to the Gateway. To that end, the agency set aside a total of $7 billion (to be spent over a period of 12 to 15 years) for the delivery services. Each company selected will be guaranteed at least two missions.

NASA’s goal is to return to the moon by 2024 and to do so sustainably. To that end, the agency is relying on the commercial industry to help out. So far, the space agency has already awarded contracts for the Gateway’s power and propulsion element as well as a small habitat module.

But that’s not all; the space agency is also taking proposals for landing services. Last November, SpaceX announced its interest and that it planned to use its Starship to deliver robotic landers to the lunar surface. Starship was originally designed to ferry people to Mars, but like the rest of the lunar program, the first step for it could be delivering payloads to the moon.

SpaceX wins NASA contract to deliver cargo to Lunar Gateway moon outpost
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