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SpaceX Dragon XL could double as a crew cabin for lunar space station

A recent modification to SpaceX’s Dragon XL lunar cargo resupply contract with NASA suggests that the spacecraft could be used as an extra crew cabin and bathroom at a lunar space station known as Gateway.

The contract modification was made around April 1st of this year and provided SpaceX around $121,000 to complete the latest study on the potential utility of its expendable Dragon XL spacecraft beyond the primary goal of resupplying a space station orbiting the Moon. Designed to deliver at least five metric tons (~11,000 lb) of pressurized and unpressurized cargo to Gateway, Dragon XL will launch on SpaceX’s own Falcon Heavy rocket – currently the only super heavy-lift launch vehicle in operation – and meant to heavily borrow from hardware and systems already developed for Crew and Cargo Dragon.

NASA first announced its selection of SpaceX for the Gateway Logistics Services (GLS) contract back in March 2020. More than a year later, very little has been said (or visibly done) to progress from that announcement to a true contract – an unusually long period of inactivity for such a significant program.

Of note, as recently as April 2021, NASA officials made it clear that they were still in the cryptic process of “reviewing” the Artemis program, leading to such a long delay between the GLS award announcement and finalization of an actual contract with SpaceX. Of note, back when it was announced, NASA’s nominal plan was to begin Dragon XL cargo deliveries as early as 2024 to support the Artemis Program’s first crewed Moon landing attempt.

Since then, however, other crucial aspects – namely the concept of operations and Human Lander System (HLS) meant to carry astronauts to and from the Moon – have evolved significantly. Weeks after NASA’s GLS announcement, the space agency awarded approximately $1 billion to three prospective HLS providers – SpaceX, Dynetics, and a team led by Blue Origin. A little over a year later, NASA announced a shocking decision to award that initial HLS Moon landing demonstration contract to SpaceX and SpaceX alone.

More or less simultaneously, NASA it made it clear that it was seriously studying the possibility of performing Artemis-3 – the first crewed Moon landing attempt in half a century – without Gateway. Along those lines, the SLS-launched Orion spacecraft and HLS lander (a custom variant of SpaceX’s Starship) would dock directly in lunar orbit instead of separately docking to Gateway to transfer crew. NASA’s decision to solely select Starship as its future Moon lander was so surprising in large part because of how starkly the vehicle’s potential capabilities contrast with the rest of the Artemis Program.

As many have already noted, the very existence of a Starship with capabilities close to what SpaceX is working towards – now a practical inevitability for the company to complete its HLS contract – brings into question the architecture NASA has proposed for Artemis. Currently, the nominal plan is to launch astronauts into an exotic high lunar orbit with NASA’s own SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft – an inconvenient orbit only needed to make up for said spacecraft’s shortcomings. Prior to recent developments, Orion would then dock with Gateway. The HLS vehicle would follow and crew would eventually transfer to the lander, which would then carry 2+ astronauts to and from the surface of the Moon and re-dock with Gateway, followed by Orion returning those astronauts to Earth.

Given that Starship offers enough pressurized volume to rival even the vast International Space Station (ISS) in a single launch, the entire concept of Gateway – an almost inhumanely tiny space station – becomes dubious. If Orion also doesn’t need Gateway to transfer its astronauts to the lander, which NASA has all but confirmed, it’s difficult to see what value Gateway could offer outside of a very expensive technology demonstration. Including a planned Falcon Heavy launch of the first two Gateway segments, station production, and the possible need for expensive Dragon XL cargo deliveries, Gateway could easily end up costing NASA $4-5 billion before it hosts a single astronaut.

NASA is already deeply concerned about the apparent likelihood of Congress systematically underfunding the HLS and Artemis programs outside of SLS and Orion, going as far as selecting just a single HLS provider after clearly indicating a desire for redundancy given enough funding. NASA’s HLS contract with SpaceX is expected to cost around $2.9 billion. The next cheapest option – Blue Origin’s proposal – would reportedly cost around $6 billion. In other words, if NASA were able to stop work and Gateway and redirect that funding elsewhere, it could almost already afford two HLS providers without a larger budget.

Given that NASA has selected SpaceX for HLS and GLS, it’s not impossible to imagine that the space agency is growing increasingly aware that Gateway and Dragon XL look more than a little redundant beside the Starship vehicle NASA itself is now funding SpaceX to realize. For now, though, work on all three programs continue. Most recently, NASA and SpaceX are studying the possibility of adding a toilet and using Dragon XL as an extra crew cabin and bathroom to augment the tiny habitable volume of Gateway’s lone habitat. Only time will tell where the cards ultimately fall.

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NASA delays starting contract with SpaceX for Gateway cargo services

Dragon XL at Gateway

WASHINGTON — More than a year after selecting SpaceX to deliver cargo to the lunar Gateway, NASA has yet to formally start that contract as it performs a broader review of its Artemis program.

NASA announced in March 2020 that it awarded a contract to SpaceX for the agency’s Gateway Logistics Services program to transport cargo to the lunar Gateway. SpaceX beat out proposals from Boeing, Northrop Grumman and Sierra Nevada Corporation for the indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract, with a maximum value of $7 billion over its 15-year life.

Since the announcement, neither NASA nor SpaceX have provided many updates on the contract or the development of the Dragon XL spacecraft that the company plans to use to carry out the cargo missions to the Gateway. Each Dragon XL, launching on a Falcon Heavy, is designed to transport at least five metric tons of pressurized and unpressurized cargo on the Gateway and also dispose of trash at the end of its mission.

One NASA official acknowledged at a recent meeting that, a year after awarding the contract, work on the contract has yet to begin. “We’ve selected SpaceX, and we’re still working on when we’re going to start that contract and all the different details, when we’re even going to be able to work with them on those types of things,” said Dina Contella, manager for mission integration and utilization in the Gateway program, during an April 9 meeting of a National Academies committee supporting the ongoing planetary science decadal survey.

She was responding to a question about the potential use of the Dragon XL cargo vehicle for hosting scientific payloads during or after its mission to the Gateway. SpaceX is interested in supporting such research, she said, but there’s been little discussion so far between NASA and SpaceX on how to do so. “We have yet to really kick off our discussions on that post-departure science with them, based on our contract status.”

NASA, in a statement provided to SpaceNews April 14, said it has yet to formally authorize SpaceX to proceed on the Gateway Logistics Services contract because the agency is studying the overall schedule of the Artemis lunar exploration program, of which development and use of the Gateway is just one part.

“An agency internal Artemis review team is currently assessing the timing of various Artemis capabilities, including Gateway. The goal of this internal review is to evaluate the current Artemis program budget and timeline, and develop high-level plans that include content, schedule, and budgets for the program,” the agency stated.

“The timing for the Gateway Logistics Services program’s authorization to proceed will be determined following conclusion of the review,” NASA added, but provided no schedule for completing the review.

A NASA procurement database shows that the agency has obligated a little more than $14 million on its Gateway Logistics Services contract with SpaceX. Most of that — $12.7 million — came from a pair of contract modifications in September 2020 to cover work on enhanced communications and “heavy ion environment testing” for operations in cislunar space. Those two contract modifications are the most recent actions on the contract.

Another contact modification earlier in September 2020, valued at about $680,000, was described in the database as “Requirement Change Evaluation for Gateway Logistics Services Risk Mitigation Due to delayed Authority to Proceed.”

It’s not clear when missions to the Gateway that require cargo delivered by SpaceX will begin. NASA now expects to launch the first two Gateway modules, the Power and Propulsion Element (PPE) and the Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO), on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy in 2024 under a contract awarded Feb. 9. Additional elements from international partners, including Canada, Europe and Japan, will follow.

The soonest astronauts would visit the Gateway would be the Artemis 3 mission, launching no earlier than 2024. However, Contella noted in her presentation that NASA was still studying the option of having the Orion spacecraft for Artemis 3 dock directly with the lunar lander, rather than have both Orion and the lander dock with the Gateway as planned for later Artemis missions.

Once crews start visiting the Gateway, Contella said she expected the need for one cargo resupply mission per crewed mission, which will carry supplies and equipment for the astronauts staying on the Gateway and potentially additional science payloads. “It will be able to provide quite a number of payloads. The main issue is just the amount of upmass required in general for the crewed missions,” she said. “There’s a lot of logistics required just for the mission itself.”

NASA is interested in using the lunar Gateway for science, with experiments both mounted on its exterior and inside the modules. That includes, Contella said, the possibility of using the Dragon XL spacecraft for experiments once it departs the Gateway at the end of its resupply mission. The spacecraft will not return to Earth but instead be disposed in a heliocentric orbit.

“We’re investigating the potential use of our Gateway logistics modules, the SpaceX vehicle, in providing payload support services after the logistics module has departed Gateway,” she said. “If it’s going to heliocentric space, then you can continue to study your science after it has departed.”

“That will cost money for operations,” she added, “but it might enable some significant science. We’ll have to work with our SpaceX vendor on that.”


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SpaceX Dragon XL could supply NASA astronauts around the Moon and Earth

SpaceX’s Moon Dragon could one day deliver supplies to astronauts in Earth orbit on top of its raison d’etre – resupplying NASA’s future lunar space station (Gateway).

Known as Dragon XL, the new SpaceX spacecraft was unexpectedly revealed earlier this year when NASA solely awarded it a Gateway Logistics Services contract potentially worth billions. Dragon XL is almost entirely built out of hardware and systems already built and proven with Cargo Dragon and Crew Dragon over 20 space station launches and two orbital missions, respectively.

Due to NASA’s ever-shifting plans and strategies, however, it’s far from guaranteed that a habitable Gateway will ever actually be built – let alone by the rough 2024 target that’s currently favorable. Given that a huge amount of Dragon XL has already technically been developed, its development should be on the slightly easier side as far as SpaceX programs go. As such, Dragon XL could be ready for flight months or even years before any lunar space station is in place with astronauts to take advantage of it. That possibility raises the question: does NASA plan on SpaceX performing a Dragon XL flight test before its lunar cargo debut?

Dragon XL is designed to resupply a lunar space station like the one pictured here but it could potentially be used with the International Space Station, too. (Northrop Grumman)

In the unsurprising event that NASA has arranged for a demonstration mission prior to Dragon XL’s first mission-critical lunar resupply launch, a cargo trip to Earth’s International Space Station (ISS) could be a valuable segue. Effectively an expendable, high-volume amalgamation of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Cargo Dragon 2 spacecraft, Dragon XL will lose the ability to return payload to the Earth’s surface (downmass) in return for a dramatic increase in payload upmass.

According to NASA, Dragon XL is designed to deliver up to 7.6 tons (~16,800 lb) of cargo – 5 tons pressurized, 2.6 tons unpressurized – to the lunar Gateway and weigh no more than 14 metric tons upon arrival. Compared to Cargo Dragon 1 and 2, XL thus offers a 25-50% improvement. As an expendable spacecraft, Dragon XL is likely going to be much simpler and lighter than SpaceX’s recoverable and reusable Dragon capsules, it’s also reasonable to assume that the new spacecraft could be substantially cheaper, too. Finally, thanks to that 14 ton Gateway mass target, it’s conceivable that a recoverable Falcon 9 booster could launch a fully-loaded Dragon XL to the ISS without issue, making the cost of launch more or less identical to any other Dragon mission.

Cargo Dragon 1 completed its 20th and final ISS mission earlier this year. (NASA)
Cargo Dragon 2, a modified version of the Crew Dragon pictured here, is expected to launch for the first time no earlier than Q4 2020. (NASA)

On the other hand, though, Dragon XL’s mission is substantially different – and in some ways more challenging – than the Dragons it’s built off of. Notably, the deep space environment can be substantially more challenging from both a thermal management and radiation perspective, while propulsive maneuvers, operations, and autonomous docking so far from Earth would be a first for SpaceX. A demonstration mission to the International Space Station (ISS) would fail to put Dragon XL through any of those unproven scenarios.

Excluding a demo mission to the ISS, a Falcon 9-launched Dragon XL could potentially serve as an extra-cheap option for NASA to deliver large volumes of supplies, hardware, and experiments to the space station, complimenting Cargo Dragon’s reusability and downmass capabilities. Of course, no current contract exists that would allow SpaceX to fly Dragon XL outside of two resupply missions to the lunar Gateway, but NASA is by no means averse to the idea according to Mark Wiese, manager of Gateway Deep Space Logistics.

Ultimately, the likelihood of Dragon XL being coopted for ISS cargo delivery is low but there is clearly a chance that NASA will exploit its substantial investment in the new SpaceX spacecraft for more than just two Gateway supply runs.

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