NASA has awarded SpaceX a $338 million contract to deliver a key part of the Artemis moon program, two pieces of an orbiting space outpost providing a gateway to the moon for astronauts.
A SpaceX Falcon Heavy will launch the lunar Gateway propulsion system and the habitation module, the foundation of the orbiting space outpost, NASA announced Tuesday.
Both elements of the gateway will liftoff in the giant nose cone of a Falcon Heavy from Kennedy Space Center’s launchpad 39A no earlier than May 2024.
Falcon Heavy has launched three times, including during a 2018 maiden flight that sent a Tesla Roadster with a dummy named Starman to orbit Mars. The rocket includes 27 Merlin engines between the center core and two Falcon 9 boosters strapped to its side. Combined, the engines are capable of producing more than 5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff.
NASA is still striving toward landing American boots back on the moon by 2024, a goal set under the Trump Administration.
The U.S. space agency’s launch services program will manage the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket launch on NASA’s end overseeing the build, delivery and launch.
While the International Space Station orbits about 200 miles above Earth, the Gateway, about one-sixth the size of the football-field-length ISS, will orbit the moon tens of thousands of miles away.
Laura Forczyk, the owner of space consulting company Astralytical, said Gateway residency will be more fluid than on the ISS.
“So the space station is continuously inhabited. There’s always people on it, but the Gateway, people are going to come and go,” Forczyk said.
The outpost will serve as a docking station for NASA’s Orion spacecraft where astronauts will stop before using a human lander system to touch down on the moon for the first time in more than 50 years.
The two pieces SpaceX will launch include Gateway’s Power and Propulsion Element, or PPE, built by Maxar Technologies and the Habitation and Logistics Outpost, or HALO, being built by Northrop Grumman.
Forczyk said there are only a few rockets that could have possibly been powerful enough to launch this combined payload, including NASA’s Space Launch System, Blue Origin’s New Glenn and the United Launch Alliances Vulcan rocket. However, those are all still in development or testing while Falcon Heavy is a proven launch vehicle.
“The Falcon Heavy was chosen probably because the Falcon Heavy is less expensive and the SLS isn’t quite ready yet,” Forczyk said. “Falcon Heavy is a proven rocket. It has launched previously, it has other contracts to launch again. And so it is one of those things that you might as well contract with a company that already has a rocket ready, then worry about SLS, which isn’t quite ready yet.”
The plan was to launch both the PPE or HALO on two rockets but with Falcon Heavy both will go up at the same time. This decision was a trade off for NASA, according to Forczyk.
“In separating the two makes it easier to launch and less expensive in a way that you don’t have to use a heavy lift rocket but it saves money on one launch. However, it was expensive to modify it to put them together on one rocket. And so there was actually a trade off there as to how much is it going to cost to launch them separately versus how much is going to cost to modify them to launch them together,” she said. “It also helps with scheduling, if you launch them together, you don’t have that delay that is inevitable.”
One launch also adds some risk because if something goes wrong NASA will lose two important pieces of the Gateway instead of one if the modules were split up into two launches.
“So with everything with space, it’s a trade off with the risk and expense,” according to Forczyk.
The Gateway’s service module is being constructed by the European Space Agency. The service module includes life support systems for Gateway including temperature control, electricity, water, oxygen and nitrogen. That element is slated to launch on the second flight of NASA’s Space Launch System, the agency’s Artemis rocket.
According to NASA’s partners at the ESA, astronauts will be able to live on the Gateway for 90 days at a time.