Another Job For Falcon Heavy–Maybe

Whenever I write here about Falcon Heavy and NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) I get a flurry of hits on those pages in the days leading up to Falcon Heavy launches because of media coverage. Space enthusiasts seem to love the Falcon Heavy and now SpaceX and NASA have given me something else to write about regarding it.

The epic first flight of Falcon Heavy

NASA’s Lunar Orbiting Gateway (LOP-G), also called Artemis, plans to place a small space station in a huge, looping Lunar orbit to better facilitate studies of the Moon, support a sustainable presence on the Lunar surface, practice long-duration spaceflight outside of Earth’s protective magnetosphere, and construct a vehicle and test technology for a mission to Mars.

At the start of the program, Artemis was also going to serve as job security for SLS, but that ship may have sailed. SLS has been delayed so far back now that it’s roll in this program has been gradually paired back to crew transport only. Cargo-only flights will be needed for LOP-G , but modules and cargo have been relegated to commercial rockets instead of SLS. Consequently, Congress seems to have stopped liking the LOP-G quite as much as they did. The boots-on-the-moon-as-soon-as-possible folks on the science side consider it a distraction and NASA seems to want to take it out of the crewed 2024 landing plan entirely.

Where all this will end up when SpaceX starts flying its Starship and Falcon Super Heavy, the biggest launch system ever, is anybody’s guess…but that’ll have an impact too. Also, the current COVID-19 crisis is spending money like water, slowing down production on everything, and giving folks more down to Earth things to think about.

Should the LOP-G survive all the drama, SpaceX was selected last week as one of the providers of cargo launches under the Gateway Logistics Services program. They will use a new vehicle that they’ve started designing, the Dragon XL (for Extra Large) that will launch on the Falcon Heavy, currently the most powerful rocket in the world, and carry up to 5 metric tons of cargo to the LOP-G per flight. NASA will select two of these providers who will each fly at least two cargo flights to the LOP-G under the contract. NASA wants both providers to build spacecraft that are capable of remaining docked at the LOP-G for up to a year, generate their own power while docked, and self-dispose of themselves at the end of it’s mission.

Normally, when folks talk about the SpaceX Dragon series of orbiters, they think of an Apollo-like capsule, but the Dragon XL isn’t a capsule and will not have the capability to return to the Earth surface like the previous two Dragon designs. It actually looks a lot like the Cygnet Spacecraft that is one of the vehicles transporting cargo to the International Space Station. NASA fills that spacecraft full of trash from the station at the end of its mission so that the cargo carrier becomes a garbage disposal unit, burning up with it on reentry into Earth’s atmosphere.

SpaceX has so far been following the spirit of these fixed-price contracts, so you can all expect the Dragon XL to carry stuff to more than just the LOP-G. Several companies have private space station projects in the works and anyone with the need for cargo delivery to them will have the Dragon XL as an option.

Of course, every time it or Falcon Heavy appear on the news, folks will Google them, read this page, and see my books for sale in the sidebar. 😉 —>

~ by Bill Housley on March 28, 2020.

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