NASA has tapped SpaceX as the first provider of space-based logistics to deliver experiment materials, cargo and supplies to its lunar Gateway, the agency announced on Friday. This means SpaceX will be among the companies that NASA can turn to when it needs things shuttled via spaceship between Earth and this forthcoming platform, which will orbit the Moon and provide a staging ground for future crewed Moon missions.
The contract means that SpaceX will play a key role in not only NASA’s forthcoming Artemis Moon missions, which will eventually seek to establish a permanent scientific human lunar presence, but that it also will be involved as NASA begins to work toward extending its reach to Mars, as well. NASA plans to launch multiple cargo supply missions to the Gateway, which has yet to be constructed, with spacecraft designed to go to the station and remain there for between six and 12 months at a time.
The total value of these contracts will top out at a maximum of $7 billion for the entire contract, with a guaranteed minimum of two missions per provider. Other providers will likely be selected, but SpaceX is the first company to be signed by NASA under the agreement. SpaceX is already contracted by NASA to deliver regular supply runs to the International Space Station in Earth orbit using its Dragon cargo spacecraft.
SpaceX is going to be launching a new variant of its Dragon spacecraft called the “Dragon XL” in order to support these missions, and they will be able to carry more than five metric tons to the Moon-orbiting station. They’ll use SpaceX’s existing Falcon Heavy craft to launch from Earth for the trip.
In terms of timing, we’ll likely have to wait a while for the first of these missions to actually take off: While the current plan is to launch the first module for the station as early as 2022, it’ll likely only be a few years after that that the station is in any shape to receive regular cargo runs.