Lunar Gateway
Northrop Grumman will build the Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO) module for the lunar Gateway, which will launch together with the Power and Propulsion Element. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — NASA awarded a contract to SpaceX Feb. 9 for the launch of the first two elements of its lunar Gateway on a Falcon Heavy in 2024.

NASA will use a Falcon Heavy rocket to launch the Power and Propulsion Element (PPE) and Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO) modules of the Gateway, destined for the near-rectilinear halo orbit around moon. The contract with SpaceX is valued at $331.8 million for the launch and “other mission-related costs.”

NASA originally planned to launch PPE and HALO separately, then have the two modules dock autonomously around the moon. The award to Maxar Technologies for the PPE in May 2019 gave the company responsibility for arranging the launch of the module and testing it in space before transferring it to NASA.

However, a year later NASA reconsidered that approach. Agency officials said that combining the two modules and launching them together would save the cost of one launch, as well as eliminate the need for a service module on HALO to provide power and propulsion during its transit to the moon. Combining the two modules on the ground also reduced risk by eliminating the need for in-space, autonomous docking.

“We’ve saved a lot of money by going ahead and putting those together on a single launch vehicle, as well as knocked down both technical and operational risk for the program,” Doug Loverro, at the time NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said at the time.

When NASA announced that revised approach in May 2020, it said it determined there was at least one company that could support the launch of the combined Gateway elements, but did not disclose that company. SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy vehicle, though, emerged as the leading candidate given the performance requirements for the mission.

Those changing plans for the Gateway prompted criticism from NASA’s Office of Inspector General. A Nov. 10 report said that the change in launch plans for the two Gateway elements increased the cost of the PPE because of technical changes, an “elevated” launch risk and potential performance shortfalls since the PPE, which will use its electric propulsion system to go to lunar orbit, will also have to carry the HALO module.

That report also said that NASA expected to launch the Gateway modules in May 2024, six months later what the agency previously said. The Feb. 9 contract announcement confirmed that the launch is now scheduled for no earlier than May 2024. The report noted that the revised launch date meant the Gateway would not be in position to support the Artemis 3 lunar landing mission that NASA planned to fly by the end of 2024, but that schedule was in jeopardy because of other issues, such as limited funding for lunar lander development, and will likely be revisited by the new administration.

The value of the launch contract is nearly three times higher than the one NASA awarded to SpaceX in February 2020 for the Falcon Heavy launch of its Psyche asteroid mission, with a total cost of $117 million. However, while the Psyche mission will likely use a standard Falcon Heavy vehicle, the lunar Gateway launch may need a new extended payload fairing, which SpaceX is developing for national security missions, along with special prelaunch processing.

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...