NASA Contracts SpaceX to be a Lunar Amazon

But the Spacecraft in the Contract Will (Probably) Never Fly

NASA recently revealed that SpaceX was selected to provide commercial resupply and delivery to the planned “Lunar Gateway.” For those who may unfamiliar, the Lunar Gateway is NASA’s idea for a small space station that orbits the Moon. The Gateway is envisioned as an outpost that can be used as a staging location for craft that will ferry crew to and from the lunar surface. SpaceX, will develop a new spacecraft, called Dragon XL, to ferry supplies from Earth to the Gateway, ostensibly, transforming SpaceX into a Lunar Amazon of sorts.

Details about this contract are scarce. We do not know how many flights are planned, for example. We do know that the launch vehicle will be SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, currently the most powerful and most capable rocket in the world. Riding atop of the Falcon Heavy will be the Dragon XL, a Frankenstein spacecraft built from existing components taken from both the Dragon 1, Dragon 2 spacecraft, and the Falcon 9 upper stage. We also know that ferry flights to the Gateway are supposed to start around 2024. Beyond this, very little is known.

While its clear that SpaceX has won big with this contract, there is no greater loser than Boeing. Boeing, the aerospace giant that has defined the industry for decades, has been on something of a slump lately. This latest news only adds insult to injury. Besides the well known 737 debacle, Boeing’s projects, including a government funded tanker project and the infamous “SLS” rocket have been beset by serious cost overruns, delays, and technical problems. Perhaps most embarrassingly, Boeing’s “Starliner” spacecraft, which is in direct competition with SpaceX’s Dragon 2 , recently failed its first orbital flight test. The fact that Boeing was passed up for the lunar resupply contract is a testament to how far this giant has fallen.

A part of me expects, however, that we may never see the Dragon XL fly. This may seem odd given that I have just illustrated how important this contract is for SpaceX and lunar exploration as a whole. Elon Musk, however, has already hinted that he hopes that the Starship spacecraft, which is being built right now, will ultimately be the ferry of choice for the Gateway.

The Starship spacecraft will be able to carry a far greater payload volume and mass than the XL ever could. More importantly, it should also be able to return payload from the Gateway (who wouldn’t buy a lunar rock for $100???) and should be able to accomplish these tasks at a lower cost due to full reusability. Given the very high likelihood that the Gateway will not be ready by 2024, it seems reasonable that the Starship will be a mature platform by the time the Gateway itself is ready.

NASA, which is conservative to its core, might prefer the Dragon XL right now because it utilizes a launch platform that is well understood and components from tried and proven spacecraft. But by the time the Gateway is ready after 2024, the Starship could be a mature product with capabilities that would be foolish to pass up.

In the end, SpaceX might end up devoting resources to a spacecraft that will never actually fly, but SpaceX has done this many times before. SpaceX has no aversion to making its own products obsolete by pushing the boundaries of what is possible, this time will likely not be any different.