We know that the LOP-G, the space station in lunar orbit designed by NASA, will not be part of the program for the return of humanity to the Moon in 2024, named Artemis. The space station is not canceled, it is simply deemed non-essential for the first manned flight of the 21st century to the surface of the Moon.
Therefore, we have to imagine that the LOP-G will be assembled a little later, certainly during the second half of the decade 2020. Once operational, it will be able to receive astronauts in lunar orbit, either in preparation for a mission on the surface of the Moon, or as a final destination.
The Orion spacecraft will be responsible for transporting crews from Earth, but the lunar space station will also need cargo, fuel, water, food and scientific experiments. Like the International Space Station, the LOP-G will need a real logistics hub to work.
NASA has selected SpaceX’s Dragon XL spacecraft
On March 27, 2020, NASA announced that it had selected SpaceX to take on this task. It’s not the Starship that was selected, but a whole new spacecraft. For the moment, it has been baptized Dragon XL.
The concept images that have been provided show that the Dragon XL is very different from the Dragon spacecraft that provides cargo to the ISS. The Dragon XL was developed from scratch.
We do know, however, that it will be launched by a Falcon Heavy launcher and that it will be able to embark 5 tonnes of cargo towards lunar orbit. By looking in detail at the computer generated images, however, one can formulate hypotheses.
The Dragon XL will not be reused
The pressurized part of the spaceship completely abandons the conical shape of the Dragon capsule. The Dragon XL is therefore not intended to return to Earth via an atmospheric re-entry. It will be a one-way trip to the Moon.
According to NASA, it should be docked at LOP-G for periods of up to a year, which will provide the space station crew with a little extra living and working space.
We do not know yet the end of mission strategy. Presumably, the Dragon XL will finish its mission in parking orbits somewhere around the Moon. This means that there will be no reuse of these spacecrafts. The flights of the Dragon XL will therefore cost more to SpaceX and to NASA.
This lucrative partnership secures the future of the Falcon Heavy launcher
The value of the contract between NASA and SpaceX is not yet known. We only know that it is less than $7 billion over 15 years since it is the total envelope available to the American space agency for its missions to send material to the lunar orbit.
Other companies could benefit from a similar contract in the coming weeks or months, in which case NASA’s budget will have to be shared. The American space agency has also not communicated on the number of flights planned with SpaceX.
This partnership will fill the Falcon Heavy launcher’s order book for at least 10 to 15 years. Therefore, using the Starship to quickly replace all other SpaceX launchers seems incompatible with NASA’s plans. But of course, that may evolve.