NASA’s eventual goal to send crewed missions to Mars will be easier to accomplish if we can return to the moon, but it won’t just be to visit this time. NASA intends to construct a space station in orbit of the moon called the Lunar Gateway, and SpaceX has the contract to supply that station.
The Gateway station is still in the very early planning stages, but its position in orbit of the moon rules out many of the launch platforms currently in use. So, it’s not terribly surprising that SpaceX would get the nod as it’s the only spaceflight operator with a flight-tested rocket capable of sending large payloads to the moon.
SpaceX says it will use the Falcon Heavy for Lunar gateway supply runs. This rocket is essentially three Falcon 9 rockets strapped together with some extra structural reinforcement on the center module. Most companies don’t need the super-heavy lift capabilities of the Falcon Heavy, so SpaceX has only launched a few commercial missions after the initial test flight that sent the first-ever car into outer space.
Missions to resupply the eventual Lunar Gateway station will make use of a modified Dragon capsule. This spacecraft will have more than five metric tons of cargo capacity, an upgrade over the current Dragon capsules. The unmodified Dragon can launch with six metric tons of cargo, but only to low-Earth orbit. Unlike the current Dragon capsules that remain docked at the ISS for about a week, the modified vessels sent to the Gateway will stay there for a full year.
SpaceX will launch a variant of Dragon, optimized to carry more than 5 metric tons of cargo to Gateway in lunar orbit https://t.co/NdJaFU1xSD
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) March 27, 2020
While SpaceX probably could use the Dragon to move astronauts to and from the Gateway, NASA is handling that part of the Artemis program on its own. The agency has spent years working on the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion crew capsule for deep space missions. NASA expects it will need one service mission for each crewed trip to the Gateway Station. From the station, astronauts will be able to head down to the lunar surface and return to the Gateway with relative ease.
SpaceX has its own plans for the moon. The company’s Starship rocket and Super Heavy launch platform will have enough power to send missions to Mars and beyond. SpaceX has already committed to sending Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa on a lunar orbital flight in the next few years.
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