NASA’s $ 1 billion contract to Blue Origin, Dynetics and SpaceX to build landers to bring astronauts to the moon hit the headlines this week – and don’t get me wrong, it’s really a big deal. But that is paltry compared to another NASA contract that SpaceX won just over a month ago.
This contract to provide logistics services to a Lunar Gateway space station in orbit around the Moon could be worth up to $7 billion – and SpaceX may not have to share it with anyone.
$ 7 billion for SpaceX…
As NASA described the larger contract award in March, SpaceX will be hired to “deliver pressurized, non-pressurized critical cargo, scientific experiments and supplies to the bridge.” Once delivered, these supplies would be stored at the space station to be restocked for astronauts exploring the lunar surface. By bringing a supply depot closer to the astronauts’ workplace, the bridge should be able to support exploration of the Moon over a longer period of time, allowing astronauts visiting Earth’s satellite to stay there longer.
SpaceX’s supply cycles will include “multiple supply missions” over a period of 12 to 15 years. Other companies may receive similar contracts and, according to NASA, the “maximum total value … for all contracts” could be up to $ 7 billion over the life of the performance. But with SpaceX currently the only contractor appointed to perform the service, there seems to be a very real chance that SpaceX alone can end up collecting all of the $ 7 billion.
… Or $ 0 for SpaceX
You see, there is just one problem with the contract that NASA awarded to SpaceX on March 27. It focuses on what NASA associate administrator of exploration and human operations Doug Loverro said about the lunar mission two weeks before the contract was awarded.
Specifically, during discussions with the Scientific Committee of the NASA Advisory Council on March 13, Loverro seemed unenthusiastic about using a lunar bridge. Highlighting the difficulty of meeting Vice President Pence’s mandate to land astronauts on the moon by 2024, Loverro said the best way to do this is to “remove anything that adds to the risk of the ongoing program. road ”. One such “thing” is the lunar bridge itself.
There is a “strong possibility,” said Loverro, that NASA will not be able to complete construction of the space station in time for astronauts to use it as a base from which to descend and climb from the Moon in 2024. Also, “from a physical point of view,” said Loverro, “I can guarantee you that we don’t need it for this launch. (Nor is he particularly in love with NASA’s original plan to “launch a lander in three individual pieces that must end up in” a space station in orbit before making their final approach to the moon.)
In other words, it is simpler and therefore less risky to send astronauts directly from Earth to the moon and to return than to have them pit stops in a space station in orbit en route. Indeed, the Starship spacecraft that SpaceX builds in Texas is expressly designed to allow such direct flights, and unnecessary intermediate stages such as the bridge.
SpaceX is not the only company to lose
Perversely, this means that if the SpaceX spacecraft East ultimately chosen as a spacecraft that brings astronauts to the moon, it could render the lunar bridge useless – and $ 7 billion in “logistics services” contracts to supply the lunar bridge. There is a very real possibility that in building Starship, SpaceX could get out of a $ 7 billion job!
If that were to happen – if Lunar Gateway is deemed unnecessary and never built – it would not only be bad news for SpaceX. Other space subcontractors, including those hired by NASA’s international partners and also those from America Maxar Technologies and Northrop grumman, both of whom were awarded contracts to build elements of the lunar bridge, could also lose.
Arguments for and against
Again, with many companies in addition to SpaceX having interests (and valuable contracts) in the lunar bridge, NASA could end up building the thing anyway. Perhaps not in time to facilitate the first real astronaut trip (return) to the Moon, but later – because even after the arrival of the astronauts, the case for creating an orbital supply depot could still have merit.
In this regard, Loverro noted that he believed that the lunar bridge would help make the lunar exploration missions “sustainable”, and therefore he thinks “100% positively that it will be” possibly built if it can be done at a reasonable cost. But even so, it leaves open the possibility that a budget-minded NASA will end up deciding that the cost is do not reasonable… especially if SpaceX succeeds in building a spacecraft that makes space stations irrelevant.
If you ask me, once this first spacecraft bypasses a space station to land on the moon independently, a lot of people (at NASA, and certainly in Congress) will start to wonder whether to spend additional billions on building a lunar bridge could be an unnecessary extravagance.
At this point, the clock will start running on Lunar Gateway – and all of the related contracts – will disappear forever.