NASA has awarded the launch contract for the first two modules of its lunar Gateway space station to SpaceX.
Gateway is a planned space station in lunar orbit intended to support both crewed and robotic missions to the surface of the Moon. The station is made up of four modules including two supplied by NASA and two from international partners.
Announced February 9, the $331.8 million Gateway launch contract will see both NASA’s Power and Propulsion Element (PPE) and Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO) modules launched aboard a single Falcon Heavy flight no earlier than May 2024.
Once launched, the Falcon Heavy will deploy the PPE and HALO stack into a high-altitude orbit around Earth. The PPE modules solar-electric thrusters will then be employed to push the stack into an elliptical orbit around the Moon.
In order to accommodate the PPE and HALO stack, SpaceX is in the process of introducing an extended fairing. The project is part of the company’s commitment to an Air Force launch services contract awarded in August 2020 that includes the construction of a vertical integration facility for national security missions.
The need for the extended fairing is likely the culprit for the $331.8 million price tag, a figure significantly higher than the $117 million for the launch of NASA’s Psyche mission aboard the Falcon Heavy. However, it is in line with the $317 million the Air Force has awarded SpaceX for the launch of its classified USSF-67 payload, which will utilise an extended fairing and the vertical integration facility.
To date, just three Falcon Heavy flights have been launched, all of which have been successful. Leading up to the May 2024 launch of NASA’s Gateway modules, an additional six missions are currently scheduled to be launched aboard Falcon Heavy vehicles. The launch manifest includes four classified payloads for the US Air Force and Department of Defense, two commercial payloads and NASA’s Psyche mission.