NASA's award of $1 billion in contracts to Blue Origin, Dynetics, and SpaceX to build landers to carry astronauts back to the moon is dominating headlines this week -- and don't get me wrong, this is a really big deal. But it pales in comparison to another NASA contract that SpaceX won just a little over a month ago.
That contract, to provide logistics services to a planned Lunar Gateway space station orbiting the moon, could be worth as much as $7 billion -- and SpaceX might not have to share it with anyone.
SpaceX has a contract to send supplies to a lunar space station -- but will there be a space station there to receive them? Image source: SpaceX.
As NASA described the larger contract award back in March, SpaceX will be hired to "deliver critical pressurized and unpressurized cargo, science experiments and supplies to the Gateway." Once delivered, these supplies would be stored at the space station for resupply to astronauts exploring the lunar surface. By bringing a supply depot closer to the astronauts' place of work, the Gateway should be able to support longer-duration exploration of the moon, enabling astronauts visiting Earth's satellite to stay there longer.
SpaceX's supply runs will include "multiple supply missions" over a term of somewhere between 12 and 15 years. Other companies may receive similar contracts, and according to NASA, the "maximum total value ... across all contracts" could add up to $7 billion over the entire performance term. But with SpaceX currently the only contractor named to perform the service, there seems to be a very real chance that SpaceX alone could end up collecting the entire $7 billion.
You see, there's just one problem with the contract that NASA awarded SpaceX on March 27. It centers on what NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Doug Loverro had said about the moon mission two weeks prior to the contract award.
Specifically, in discussions with NASA Advisory Council's science committee on March 13, Loverro appeared to be less than enthusiastic about the idea of using a Lunar Gateway. Highlighting the difficulty of meeting Vice President Pence's mandate to land astronauts on the moon by 2024, Loverro said the best way to make that happen is to "remove all the things that add to program risk along the way." One such "thing" is the Lunar Gateway itself.
There is a "high possibility," explained Loverro, that NASA won't be able to complete construction of the space station in time for astronauts to use it as a base from which to descend to, and ascend from, the moon in 2024. Moreover, "from a physics perspective," said Loverro, "I can guarantee you we do not need it for this launch." (He's also not particularly enamored of NASA's original plan "to launch a lander in three individual pieces that have to meet up at" an orbiting space station before making their final approach to the moon.)
Simply put, it's simpler and thus less risky to send astronauts straight from Earth to the moon and back than to have them make pit stops at an orbiting space station en route. Indeed, the Starship spaceship that SpaceX is building in Texas is expressly designed to make such direct flights possible, and intermediate steps such as the Gateway unnecessary.
Perversely, this means that if SpaceX's Starship is eventually chosen as the spaceship that takes astronauts back to the moon, it could make the Lunar Gateway -- and $7 billion worth of "logistics services" contracts to supply the Lunar Gateway -- unnecessary. There's a very real possibility that in building Starship, SpaceX could be working itself out of a $7 billion job!
If that were to happen -- if Lunar Gateway gets deemed unnecessary and never built -- it wouldn't just be bad news for SpaceX, either. Other space contractors, including those hired by NASA's international partners and also America's own Maxar Technologies and Northrop Grumman, both of which have been awarded contracts to build elements of the Lunar Gateway, could lose out as well.
Then again, with many companies in addition to SpaceX having vested interests (and valuable contracts) in the Lunar Gateway, NASA could end up building the thing anyway. Maybe not in time to facilitate the actual first trip by astronauts (back) to the moon, but later on -- because even after the astronauts arrive, the arguments in favor of establishing an orbital supply depot might still have merit.
In that regard, Loverro noted that he thinks the Lunar Gateway would help make lunar exploration missions "sustainable," and so he believes "100% positively it will be" built eventually if this can be done at a reasonable cost. But even so, this leaves open the possibility that a budget-conscious NASA may end up deciding the cost is not reasonable ... especially if SpaceX succeeds in building a spaceship that makes space stations irrelevant.
If you ask me, once that first spaceship bypasses a space station to touch down on the moon independently, a lot of folks (in NASA, and certainly in Congress) are going to start wondering whether spending extra billions to build a Lunar Gateway might be an unnecessary extravagance.
At that point, the clock will start ticking on Lunar Gateway -- and all the contracts tied to it -- going away forever.
- Next-generation Dragon cargo spacecraft returns from space station - SpaceNews - January 15th, 2021
- Bad weather on Earth delays SpaceX Dragon's return from space station - Space.com - January 15th, 2021
- Debate Rages Over Whether Single Speeding Cheeto Could Destroy Space Station - Futurism - January 15th, 2021
- China to begin construction of space station this year - Spaceflight Now - January 15th, 2021
- China Should Build a Space Station Orbiting the Moon, Father of Lunar Mission Says - Caixin Global - January 15th, 2021
- How Does Long-Term Spaceflight Affect Vision? - Texas A&M Today - Texas A&M University Today - January 15th, 2021
- Japanese Space Agency to Make the Systems for the Lunar Space Station Habitat - autoevolution - January 15th, 2021
- Gateway Foundation Gives a Detailed Update on its Voyager Station Concept - Universe Today - January 15th, 2021
- Great Scotty! The ashes of Star Treks James Doohan were smuggled onto the International Space Station - Daily Star Trek News - January 15th, 2021
- Twelve bottles of wine went to space now its almost time to taste them - SlashGear - January 15th, 2021
- Liftoff! Astronauts Head To Space Station On SpaceX Rocket ... - December 19th, 2020
- Astronaut Tom Marshburn '82 to Pilot SpaceX Mission to International Space Station - Davidson News - December 19th, 2020
- Santa Claus to fly by the International Space Station - GPS World magazine - December 19th, 2020
- Russian astronauts still battling air leak on International Space Station | Daily Sabah - Daily Sabah - December 19th, 2020
- Canada inks deal with US to send astronaut around the moon for new space station - Daily Commercial News - December 19th, 2020
- Commentary | Tim Peake's 2015 space station mission gave UK science a long-lasting shot in the arm - SpaceNews - December 19th, 2020
- Utilizing the International Space Station to enable humans to reach Mars - The Hill - December 19th, 2020
- Canadian astronauts will start flying to the moon in 2023 with NASA's Artemis missions - Space.com - December 19th, 2020
- How people spend an isolated Christmas in space, on submarines and in Antarctica - iNews - December 19th, 2020
- Experience zero-gravity without going to space - WPVI-TV - December 19th, 2020
- NASA shows what snow-covered Himalayas look like from space - The Indian Express - December 19th, 2020
- Check out these amazing views of Earth shot from the space station - Digital Trends - December 19th, 2020
- Seeds from Taiwan plant species launched to space station - Taiwan News - December 8th, 2020
- Astronauts harvest radishes grown aboard the International Space Station - CNN - December 4th, 2020
- Art projects from 2 students head to the International Space Station - KCTV Kansas City - December 4th, 2020
- Celebrating 20 years of space station research, discovery | Technology Today - Theredstonerocket - December 4th, 2020
- HemoCue Lab-Accuracy: Soon Counting White Blood Cells in Outer Space. Innovative Technology Onboard SpaceX Falcon 9 Mission CRS-21 - Bound for... - December 4th, 2020
- Proposed New Russian Space Station Will Be Able to Monitor the Entire World - Space Daily - December 4th, 2020
- ISS astronauts celebrated Thanksgiving aboard the space station - SlashGear - December 4th, 2020
- Op-ed | China, the moon, Mars, and beyond an opportunity for human cooperation - SpaceNews - December 4th, 2020
- Theres Fabric on the Space Station That Scientists Are Using to Listen for Space Dust Impacts - Universe Today - December 4th, 2020
- NASA TV Coverage Set for Next Space Station Resupply Mission with SpaceX - The Southern Maryland Chronicle - December 4th, 2020
- Find out how were working toward living and working in space at TC Sessions: Space 2020 - TechCrunch - December 4th, 2020
- Chinese probe heads back to Earth after leaving moon's surface - The Guardian - December 4th, 2020
- Solar power stations in space could be the answer to our energy needs - Space.com - December 4th, 2020
- Orbits explained: It's hard to get into space -- but great once you're there - CNET - December 4th, 2020
- Russia to design space station section for 3D-printing - United News of India - December 4th, 2020
- See the International Space Station tonight and 4 planets - 69News WFMZ-TV - October 4th, 2020
- Space Station Crew Awakened by Flight Controllers After Vexing Air Leak Appeared to Grow in Size - SciTechDaily - October 4th, 2020
- When and where to see the International Space Station above Cornwall this week - Falmouth Packet - October 4th, 2020
- New crew will launch to the International Space Station in October - CNN - July 5th, 2020
- Astronauts are taking a spacewalk outside their space station today. Watch it live! - Space.com - July 5th, 2020
- Looked Like I Was Walking Into A Space Station: Thrill-Seekers In New Jersey Flock To Six Flags Great Adventures Reopening - CBS Philly - July 5th, 2020
- Op-ed | On the verge of a new era for space exploration? Assessing the impact of the ongoing crisis - SpaceNews - July 5th, 2020
- How will astronauts poop on the moon? New NASA challenge aims to flush this mystery - Space.com - July 5th, 2020
- Its like being on a space station: Aftab Shivdasani on shooting amid coronavirus pandemic - The Indian Express - July 5th, 2020
- Are we making spacecraft too autonomous? - MIT Technology Review - July 5th, 2020
- SpaceX Vs Blue Origin: Who Wins The Space Race - Analytics India Magazine - July 5th, 2020
- Pacific Northwest Bathed in Green and White - nasa.gov - July 5th, 2020
- Spuds and space: NASA and Idaho have a long history - East Idaho News - July 5th, 2020
- Balloon trips to the edge of space by 2021 - CNN - July 5th, 2020
- SpaceX is launching an advanced GPS satellite for the US Space Force today. Here's how to watch. - Space.com - July 5th, 2020
- Boeing shifts its team leaders for space station and Starliner space programs - GeekWire - June 20th, 2020
- The International Space Station is getting a new toilet this year - Space.com - June 20th, 2020
- Astronauts: Falcon 9 rocket was totally different ride than the space shuttle - WITI FOX 6 Milwaukee - June 20th, 2020
- Astronauts and NASA pay homage to Juneteenth - Space.com - June 20th, 2020
- Green glow seen in the atmosphere of Mars, similar to Earth's from space station - Firstpost - June 20th, 2020
- Astronaut and Maine Native Jessica Meir Talks About Experience in Space - NECN - June 20th, 2020
- They Want to Sell Balloon Rides 19 Miles Up. Havent We Heard This Before? - The New York Times - June 20th, 2020
- Students chat with the ISS from their homes - Brentsville District High - June 20th, 2020
- You Can Make Money in Space on Earth - DailyWealth - June 20th, 2020
- What is the 'zero gravity' that people experience in the vomit comet or space flight? - The Conversation US - June 20th, 2020
- Cosmic 'Lighthouses' to Help Space Travellers Find Ways to Moon, Mars - The Weather Channel - June 20th, 2020
- SpaceX is building a floating, superheavy-class spaceport in the Gulf of Mexico - Houston Chronicle - June 20th, 2020
- What Does it Mean to Be a Space Architect? - Universe Today - June 20th, 2020
- Whatever happened to reforming space traffic management? - Politico - June 20th, 2020
- Livestream: NASAs SpaceX Demo-2 launch to the International Space Station - Boston.com - May 27th, 2020
- In photos: The Expedition 63 mission to the International Space Station - Space.com - May 27th, 2020
- NASA chief "all in" for Tom Cruise to film on space station - Herald-Whig - May 27th, 2020
- Look up: International Space Station visible above Thunder Bay in coming weeks - CBC.ca - May 27th, 2020
- International Space Station visible over Devon and Cornwall tonight - Plymouth Live - May 27th, 2020
- Here's how to see the International Space Station passing over Bristol this weekend - Bristol Live - May 27th, 2020
- You can view the International Space Station from Vancouver tonight - Vancouver Is Awesome - May 27th, 2020
- The next SpaceX launch will be the company's first with people on board - CNBC - May 18th, 2020
- Timetable for spotting the International Space Station as it passes over the UK and nine-year-old Lottie from Newbury takes her first cosmic... - May 18th, 2020
- International Space Station visible in orbit over the UK until the beginning of June - Newbury Weekly News Group - May 18th, 2020
- Salad could be grown on Mars, scientists say - The Independent - May 18th, 2020
- How and when to see the International Space Station in the sky from where you live - Hillingdon Times - May 18th, 2020
- International Space Station tracker: how to see the ISS fly over Scotland in May - The Scotsman - May 18th, 2020
- MB&F and LEpe 1839's Latest Clock is a Horological Space Station - HYPEBEAST - May 18th, 2020