SpaceX’s most powerful rocket will send NASA cargo to the moon’s orbit to supply astronauts

A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, carrying the Arabsat 6A communications satellite, lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, April 11, 2019.

Thom Baur | Reuters

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration on Friday picked SpaceX as the first supplier to bring cargo to the agency’s Gateway station in orbit around the moon, a big contract win for Elon Musk’s space company.

SpaceX said it will use a new variation of its cargo spacecraft, called Dragon XL, to carry “more than 5 metric tons of cargo to Gateway in lunar orbit.” The company will lift the spacecraft using its Falcon Heavy rocket, the most powerful rocket in the world.

“Returning to the Moon and supporting future space exploration requires affordable delivery of significant amounts of cargo,” SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell said in a statement.

SpaceX has been launching cargo to the International Space Station under a similar NASA contract since 2012, using its Cargo Dragon spacecraft. Additionally, SpaceX has launched its Falcon Heavy rocket three times. A Falcon Heavy rocket goes for between $90 million and $150 million per launch depending on the circumstances.

NASA expects to award $7 billion worth of supply contracts under the Gateway program. Those will span multiple missions to Gateway, lasting between 6 months and a year each.

Illustration of the SpaceX Dragon XL as it is deployed from the Falcon Heavy’s second stage in high Earth orbit on its way to the Gateway in lunar orbit.

SpaceX

“This contract award is another critical piece of our plan to return to the Moon sustainably,” NASA leader Jim Bridenstine said in a statement.

Gateway is a small spaceship that NASA plans to put in orbit around the moon to host astronauts as well as conduct scientific experiments. Bridenstine described Gateway as “the cornerstone” of NASA’s Artemis program, which is the agency plan to land U.S. astronauts on the lunar surface by 2024. 

“This deep space commercial cargo capability integrates yet another American industry partner into our plans for human exploration at the Moon in preparation for a future mission to Mars,” Bridenstine said.

SpaceX has completed 20 cargo missions to the International Space Station since its first in 2012.

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