ORLANDO — NASA anticipates starting work later this year on the first cargo mission for the lunar Gateway, three years after awarding SpaceX a contract for such missions.

NASA selected SpaceX in March 2020 for its first Gateway Logistics Services contract to transport cargo to and from the lunar Gateway. SpaceX will develop a version of its Dragon cargo spacecraft, called Dragon XL, that would launch on a Falcon Heavy to deliver several tons of cargo to Gateway and remove trash.

However, there had been little public progress on that effort since the 2020 announcement. A NASA official said a year after the contract award that it had delayed a formal authorization to proceed (ATP) on the first mission as the agency evaluated the overall plans for the Artemis program and when that mission would be needed. The lack of information since then, though, prompted speculation that the program might be in jeopardy.

Speaking on a panel at the SpaceCom conference here Feb. 22, NASA’s Mark Wiese, manager of deep space logistics for the Gateway program, said the agency had waited to start work on the first logistics mission as it focused on other aspects of Gateway.

“If you look at the overall Artemis architecture, logistics is the shortest pole in the tent from a development standpoint,” he explained. The contract has a four-year lead time for the first mission, but he suggested SpaceX might be ready faster than that.

“We purposely delayed that, turning it on, to make sure we’re not spending money and throwing resources where it doesn’t need to be thrown,” he said, while working on other aspects of Artemis.

The first Artemis mission to use the Gateway will be Artemis 4, currently scheduled for 2027. That means that NASA is preparing to give the go-ahead for that first logistics mission needed to support Artemis 4 this year. “We’re looking forward to ATP’ing that mission this year to enable that 2027 first crewed mission.”

Wiese said later that the NASA has been working with SpaceX on a series of studies to refine the Dragon XL design and examine cargo configurations and other capabilities that could be enabled by the spacecraft.

He confirmed that SpaceX will use Dragon XL for those initial missions, but left the door open for using the company’s Starship vehicle for cargo delivery in the future. “We are all for enabling evolution,” he said. “We talked to them about Starship evolution and how it all worked together, but we’re not there yet because it’s still in a development phase.”

NASA also envisions expanding the overall Gateway Logistics Services contract to add more providers. He noted NASA issued a request for information last year to understand emerging industry capabilities, such as new launch vehicles.

“We want that. It’s just a matter of funding,” he said of adding providers. “We’ve got to get out first mission turned on and get a funding stream going so we can justify an on-ramp.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...