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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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NASA signs Gateway habitat design contract with Northrop Grumman

Artist’s illustration of the Gateway’s PPE and HALO modules in lunar orbit. Credit: NASA

NASA has signed a $187 million contract with Northrop Grumman to complete the preliminary design of a pressurized crew habitat for the planned Gateway mini-space station near the moon, and agency officials have discussed new details about plans to launch first two Gateway modules on a single heavy-lift rocket.

The contract with Northrop Grumman announced June 5 covers Northrop Grumman’s work to design the Gateway’s habitation and logistics outpost, or HALO, module. The pressurized cabin will offer expanded living quarters for astronauts arriving at the Gateway on NASA’s Orion crew capsule.

“This contract award is another significant milestone in our plan to build robust and sustainable lunar operations,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine in a statement. “The Gateway is a key component of NASA’s long-term Artemis architecture and the HALO capability furthers our plans for human exploration at the Moon in preparation for future human missions to Mars.”

The $187 contract announced June 5 will carry Northrop Grumman’s work on the HALO element through a preliminary design review scheduled for the end of 2020. NASA announced last year that it would award a sole-source contract with Northrop Grumman for the HALO, but a firm agreement was not announced until this month.

NASA said it will sign a separate contract with Northrop Grumman for the fabrication and assembly of the HALO for integration with the Gateway’s Power and Propulsion Element, a solar-powered spacecraft with electric thrusters being built by Maxar Technologies.

The Gateway is part of NASA’s Artemis moon program, which aims to send astronauts to the lunar surface before the end of 2024, a deadline set by the Trump administration. But NASA says the Gateway is unlikely to be part of the program’s first crewed lunar landing mission, which is expected to involve a direct link-up between an Orion crew capsule and a human-rated lunar lander around the moon, without going through the Gateway.

The HALO will be derived from Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus supply ship that flies cargo to the International Space Station. With a pressure shell made in Italy by Thales Alenia Space, the Gateway’s first habitat module will be outfitted with additional docking ports and command and control capabilities, including upgraded environmental control and life support systems, according to Northrop Grumman.

The combined function of the HALO and Orion life support systems will sustain up to four astronauts for up to 30 days on the Gateway, officials said.

“By leveraging the active Cygnus production line, Northrop Grumman has the unique capability of providing an affordable and reliable HALO module in the timeframe needed to support NASA’s Artemis program,” Northrop Grumman said.

“The success of our Cygnus spacecraft and its active production line helps to enable Northrop Grumman to deliver the HALO module,” said Steve Krein, vice president for civil and commercial satellites at Northrop Grumman. “HALO is an essential element in NASA’s long-term exploration of deep-space, and our HALO program team will continue its work in building and delivering this module in partnership with NASA.”

The docking ports on the HALO module will accommodate Orion crew capsules, lunar landers and cargo ships.

The Gateway’s unpressurized Power and Propulsion Element will serve as the service module for the mini-space station, providing electrical power generated by huge roll-out solar arrays and propulsion capability from high-power solar-electric thrusters made by Aerojet Rocketdyne.

NASA has signed a contract with SpaceX to provide logistics services to the Gateway using an extended version of the Dragon spacecraft launched aboard Falcon Heavy rockets. The Dragon XL will carry up experiments, food, supplies, spacesuits and other equipment to support astronauts on the Gateway.

In April, NASA announced agreements with Blue Origin, Dynetics and SpaceX to advance the design of crew-rated lunar lander concepts for the Artemis program.

NASA discusses new details about tandem launch of first two Gateway elements

Ken Bowersox, the acting head of NASA’s human spaceflight division, said Tuesday that the agency’s plan to launch the PPE and HALO elements on the same heavy-lift rocket will require the Gateway’s solar-powered thrusters to do more of the work to position the lunar outpost into its planned orbit around the moon.

NASA has not selected a rocket to carry the two modules into space, but the massive payload could fit on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket with a lengthened payload fairing currently in development to accommodate large U.S. military satellites, officials said. A final selection of a launch vehicle for the Gateway modules is expected before the end of this year.

Agency managers previously intended to launch the PPE module and the HALO on separate rockets in 2022 and 2023. Now the combined elements are scheduled for launch in November 2023, according to Dan Hartman, NASA’s Gateway program manager.

The Gateway’s Power and Propulsion Element and HALO habitation module will now launch together inside an extended payload fairing. Credit: NASA

The tandem launch will allow engineers to connect the modules together on the ground at the Kennedy Space Center, rather than having to perform an automated docking in the vicinity of the moon. The connections involve structural, mechanical, power and fluids interfaces.

Northrop Grumman will handle the connections between the HALO and the Maxar-built Power and Propulsion Element.

That will save money and reduce risk, according to NASA.

Rather than launching directly on a trajectory toward the moon, the first two Gateway modules will deploy off their launch vehicle in a high-altitude orbit around Earth, then head to an elliptical halo orbit around the moon.

“When we decided to integrate the PPE and the HALO, we realized that we weren’t going to be able to get the elements all the way out to the moon with the launch vehicle,” Bowersox said Tuesday. “What would work better was to get them into a high orbit and then use the solar-electric propulsion to get out to cislunar space, so that’s our plan now.”

NASA says the Gateway will have several missions, including demonstrating technologies for future deep space missions, such as human expeditions to Mars. Many engineers consider high-power solar-electric propulsion, which uses electricity and an inert gas to produce thrust, as an essential technology for long-duration flights to Mars.

“The great part about that plan is we’re going to get lots of run time on those solar-electric engines, and we’re going to get the run time very early in the vehicle’s life,” Bowersox said. “So Gateway will already have served a big part of its purpose within its first year of life, and then we’ll be able to add additional (xenon) fuel to the gateway, get more information on how long those engines last in addition to supporting the work on the lunar surface.”

The Gateway will also act as a safe haven for astronauts heading to the lunar surface, and it will offer a staging point for lunar landers, allowing the vehicles to eventually be refueled and reused for multiple trips to and from the moon.

But NASA has deferred some work on the Gateway in favor of accelerating development of crewed lunar landing vehicles. While the Gateway could provide communications relay support for the Artemis program’s first lunar landing mission with astronauts, crews are not expected to visit the Gateway until at least 2025.

NASA has often emphasized the Gateway’s ability to host scientific payloads for solar and astronomical research, alongside biological and radiation experiments, and lunar research instruments. But much of those capabilities will come later, once international elements are added to the Gateway.

Canada is developing a new robotic arm for the Gateway station, and Japanese and European space agencies are working on larger habitation module and a refueling and communications package for the outpost in lunar orbit.

“We want to use Gateway for as much science as we can, but as we descope Gateway, we’re going to have just less surface area on the outside, less surface area on the inside, so we’re not going to have as much room for different science investigations,” Bowersox said Tuesday. “But we want to get as much out of it as we can.”

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