Dragon XL
SpaceX's Dragon XL, seen here separating from the upper stage of its Falcon Heavy rocket, will deliver cargo to the lunar Gateway under a NASA contract awarded March 27. Credit: SpaceX

WASHINGTON — NASA announced March 27 it has selected SpaceX to provide cargo transportation services for the agency’s planned lunar Gateway.

SpaceX is the first, and to date only, company selected by NASA for its Gateway Logistics Services program. Modeled on the commercial cargo program for the International Space Station, the program will pay for cargo transportation services to and from the lunar Gateway to support crewed missions there and to the lunar surface.

SpaceX will use a new spacecraft, called Dragon XL, launched on the company’s Falcon Heavy rocket to carry cargo to the lunar Gateway. SpaceX described the spacecraft, whose development it had not previously disclosed, as a variant of the company’s existing Dragon spacecraft capable of carrying more than five metric tons of pressurized and unpressurized cargo.

An illustration of Dragon XL released by NASA showed the spacecraft to be cylindrical, and not the conical shape of the cargo Dragon or its new crew variant. The Gateway Logistics Services request for proposals required the disposal of cargo from the station, but not return to Earth.

“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 Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in an agency statement announcing the award.

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

NASA issued a call for proposals for the Gateway Logistics Services program in August. Companies had to propose spacecraft capable of carrying at least 3,400 kilograms of pressurized cargo and 1,000 kilograms of unpressurized cargo to the Gateway, and be able to dispose of at least as much cargo from the Gateway. Proposals were due in October and NASA originally expected to make awards by the end of 2019. The agency didn’t disclose the reason for the nearly three-month delay.

Each mission will remain docked to the station for up to a year and could provide additional volume for crews there. “Bringing a logistics provider onboard ensures we can transport all the critical supplies we need for the Gateway and on the lunar surface to do research and technology demonstrations in space that we can’t do anywhere else. We also anticipate performing a variety of research on and within the logistics module,” said Dan Hartman, the Gateway program manager NASA’s Johnson Space Center, in the statement.

Financial terms of the contract were not disclosed. The contract is an indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity award, with a total cost value over the entire 15-year program, which could later include other companies, of $7 billion.

How many missions SpaceX will fly, and when, were not disclosed, but a shift in NASA’s lunar exploration strategy could mean fewer opportunities in the near term. Doug Loverro, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said at a March 13 advisory committee meeting that NASA was taking the Gateway out of the “critical path” for a 2024 human return to the lunar surface and had simplified its design. NASA has not elaborated on those revised plans since his comments.

“Frankly, had we not done that simplification, I was going to have to cancel Gateway because I couldn’t afford it,” Loverro said at the meeting. “By simplifying it and taking it out of the critical path, I can now keep it on track.”

He emphasized that the Gateway remained important for NASA’s long-term “sustainable” lunar exploration plans, which will also feature contributions from international partners. “By taking Gateway out of the critical path for the lunar landing in ’24, I believe what we have done is create a far better Gateway program,” he said.

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...