SpaceX Dragon XL could supply NASA astronauts around the Moon and Earth

NASA has selected SpaceX to deliver cargo to its upcoming Lunar Gateway. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX’s Moon Dragon could one day deliver supplies to astronauts in Earth orbit on top of its raison d’etre – resupplying NASA’s future lunar space station (Gateway).

Known as Dragon XL, the new SpaceX spacecraft was unexpectedly revealed earlier this year when NASA solely awarded it a Gateway Logistics Services contract potentially worth billions. Dragon XL is almost entirely built out of hardware and systems already built and proven with Cargo Dragon and Crew Dragon over 20 space station launches and two orbital missions, respectively.

Due to NASA’s ever-shifting plans and strategies, however, it’s far from guaranteed that a habitable Gateway will ever actually be built – let alone by the rough 2024 target that’s currently favorable. Given that a huge amount of Dragon XL has already technically been developed, its development should be on the slightly easier side as far as SpaceX programs go. As such, Dragon XL could be ready for flight months or even years before any lunar space station is in place with astronauts to take advantage of it. That possibility raises the question: does NASA plan on SpaceX performing a Dragon XL flight test before its lunar cargo debut?

Dragon XL is designed to resupply a lunar space station like the one pictured here but it could potentially be used with the International Space Station, too. (Northrop Grumman)

In the unsurprising event that NASA has arranged for a demonstration mission prior to Dragon XL’s first mission-critical lunar resupply launch, a cargo trip to Earth’s International Space Station (ISS) could be a valuable segue. Effectively an expendable, high-volume amalgamation of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Cargo Dragon 2 spacecraft, Dragon XL will lose the ability to return payload to the Earth’s surface (downmass) in return for a dramatic increase in payload upmass.

According to NASA, Dragon XL is designed to deliver up to 7.6 tons (~16,800 lb) of cargo – 5 tons pressurized, 2.6 tons unpressurized – to the lunar Gateway and weigh no more than 14 metric tons upon arrival. Compared to Cargo Dragon 1 and 2, XL thus offers a 25-50% improvement. As an expendable spacecraft, Dragon XL is likely going to be much simpler and lighter than SpaceX’s recoverable and reusable Dragon capsules, it’s also reasonable to assume that the new spacecraft could be substantially cheaper, too. Finally, thanks to that 14 ton Gateway mass target, it’s conceivable that a recoverable Falcon 9 booster could launch a fully-loaded Dragon XL to the ISS without issue, making the cost of launch more or less identical to any other Dragon mission.

Cargo Dragon 1 completed its 20th and final ISS mission earlier this year. (NASA)
Cargo Dragon 2, a modified version of the Crew Dragon pictured here, is expected to launch for the first time no earlier than Q4 2020. (NASA)

On the other hand, though, Dragon XL’s mission is substantially different – and in some ways more challenging – than the Dragons it’s built off of. Notably, the deep space environment can be substantially more challenging from both a thermal management and radiation perspective, while propulsive maneuvers, operations, and autonomous docking so far from Earth would be a first for SpaceX. A demonstration mission to the International Space Station (ISS) would fail to put Dragon XL through any of those unproven scenarios.

Excluding a demo mission to the ISS, a Falcon 9-launched Dragon XL could potentially serve as an extra-cheap option for NASA to deliver large volumes of supplies, hardware, and experiments to the space station, complimenting Cargo Dragon’s reusability and downmass capabilities. Of course, no current contract exists that would allow SpaceX to fly Dragon XL outside of two resupply missions to the lunar Gateway, but NASA is by no means averse to the idea according to Mark Wiese, manager of Gateway Deep Space Logistics.

Ultimately, the likelihood of Dragon XL being coopted for ISS cargo delivery is low but there is clearly a chance that NASA will exploit its substantial investment in the new SpaceX spacecraft for more than just two Gateway supply runs.

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Eric Ralph: I write about space, among other things.
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