The National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) has awarded Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) another important contract for the former’s lunar space station. Dubbed as the Lunar Gateway, the station is a non-critical part of the agency’s Artemis program which aims to land U.S. astronauts on the lunar surface decades after the completion of the Apollo program. Today’s award is the second Gateway contract that NASA has awarded to the California-based launch services provider, with the first one having come in March 2020, when SpaceX managed to beatThe Boeing Company, Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems and Sierra Nevada Corporation, Space Systems (SNC).
SpaceX To Use Heavy-Lift Platform Falcon Heavy For NASA’s Lunar Space Station
Through the latest contract award, which is worth a cool $332 million, SpaceX will transport two key elements of the Gateway to their specified locations. The first of these elements will be responsible for housing the astronauts inside the station once it is complete and the Artemis missions kick-off, and the other will be responsible for the outpost’s maneuverability. NASA calls the former as the Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO), and the latter as the Power and Propulsion Element (PPE), with the PPE being a 60-kilowatt electrically powered spaceship that will also handle the outpost’s communications.
The Gateway has been a source of controversy, with multiple elements calling it unnecessary for NASA’s Artemis program. However, with today’s award, it seems as if the space agency will move forward with the outpost, and if it manages to successfully do so, then the astronauts who do make it to the lunar surface through the Artemis program will be able to sleep easy at night knowing that an outpost is within reach.
NASA’s choice of the Falcon Heavy also speaks about the agency’s confidence in SpaceX’s heavy-lift launch vehicle. Originally designed for military payloads to difficult orbits such as polar orbits, the Heavy has taken the backseat in SpaceX’s aggressive launch cadence which primarily features the company’s workhorse Falcon 9 Block 5 medium-lift rocket. The Falcon 9 is easier to launch and manage than the Falcon Heavy, as the latter features three boosters each singularly equivalent to the Falcon 9.
Additionally, the PPE and HALO awards are not the only NASA awards that will use the Falcon Heavy. The space agency also chose SpaceX’s largest functional rocket for its Psyche spacecraft that will launch next year and end up studying the asteroid Psyche. After launch, it will take Psyche at least four years to reach its intended orbit, and during its journey, it will also pass Mars. The Psyche award was valued at $117 million by NASA, and today’s award is valued at $331.8 million.
NASA will integrate both the elements of the lunar outpost on Earth, and they are scheduled to take to the skies as soon as May 2024. NASA”s original timeline for the Artemis program had planned the first mission through the Space Launch System (SLS) super-heavy lift launch vehicle this year, and this timeline also defined the Gateway’s Platform Operations to take place a year earlier in 2023.
By 2024, NASA had also planned to launch the first astronauts to the lunar surface through the third flight of the Artemis program. However, given the immense complications of launching and operating these systems, the space agency should take all the precautions that it can to make sure that the program which is expected to last roughly ten years proceeds without hiccups. Operating on the lunar surface will provide NASA with crucial data that will help the agency further its scientific understanding of the human body and space – and potentially even take humans to Mars.