NASA has tapped SpaceX to launch the first two components of the Lunar Gateway on the Falcon Heavy rocket. The components are expected to launch as early as May 2024.
The Lunar Gateway is expected to provide logistical support for future crewed lunar landings once it become operational in lunar orbit. The original plan for the Gateway also included support for long-distance space missions such as crewed journeys to Mars, though that appears to have gone by the wayside due to funding issues and the possibility that future crewed missions to Mars will not necessarily need to make pit stops at a “gas station.” When completed, the Gateway will be about 1/6 the size of the International Space Station, which is about the size of a football field.
“As the first long-term orbiting outpost around the Moon, the Gateway is critical to supporting sustainable astronauts missions under the agency’s Artemis program,” NASA said in a statement.
NASA is leading an international partnership interested in constructing the Gateway. Canada, for instance, intends to supply an upgraded version of the Canadarm that it provided for NASA’s space shuttle and the Canadarm2 on the International Space Station. The collaboration appears designed to build on existing partnerships and capacities developed for the International Space Station.
The first two components slated to be launched include the Power and Propulsion Element (PPE) and Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO). These important components will provide power for the station and sleeping quarters for its crews, as well as provide communications between the station and incoming spacecraft, support onboard experiments, and supplement Orion’s life support while docked.
The components will be integrated into a single piece on Earth before being launched to their final destination in lunar orbit. NASA expects to spend a total of $331.8 million on these two components, including construction and launch costs.
While NASA’s current plans include launching crews to the station using the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion spacecraft, some observers have questioned whether NASA will be able to get the SLS / Orion combination fully operational. Meanwhile, SpaceX has already launched two of NASA’s crews to the International Space Station on the Crew Dragon with more planned launches on the way as part of its contracts with NASA.
SpaceX is in the running to provided a crewed lunar lander for NASA, which recently delayed its down-select process due to uncertainties about funding. It also has contracts to launch lunar landers for companies like Intuitive Machines. In May 2020, SpaceX won a contract to deliver supplies to the Gateway using an upgraded version of the Cargo Dragon.
The Biden administration has publicly expressed support for NASA’s crewed lunar landing program, called Artemis, and some members of Congress have also encouraged support in a letter to the White House. NASA, however, says that landing humans on the Moon by 2024, as the Trump administration wanted, is unlikely given current funding levels.
The selection of SpaceX to launch some of the components may be a good way to save on costs because, unlike the SLS, SpaceX already has a flightworthy Falcon Heavy and can reuse some of the rocket stages.
(The Starship rocket is apparently a different matter. In the rocket world, sometimes stuff goes boom, although engineers say that they got enough data from high-altitude test conducting using the prototypes SN8 and SN9 to make improvements.)
The Falcon Heavy, however, is likely to be sufficient to launch the first two components for NASA’s Lunar Gateway in 2024.