SpaceX Offers NASA A Custom Moon Freighter

Under the current Administration, NASA has been tasked with returning American astronauts to the Moon as quickly as possible. The Artemis program would launch a crewed mission to our nearest celestial neighbor as soon as 2024, and establish a system for sustainable exploration and habitation by 2028. It’s an extremely aggressive timeline, to put it mildly.

To have any chance of meeting these goals, NASA will have to enlist the help of not only its international partners, but private industry. There simply isn’t enough time for the agency to design, build, and test all of the hardware that will eventually be required for any sort of sustained presence on or around the Moon. By awarding a series of contracts, NASA plans to offload some of the logistical components of the Artemis program to qualified companies and agencies.

Artist’s Rendering of the Dragon XL

For anyone who’s been following the New Space race these last few years, it should come as no surprise to hear that SpaceX has already been awarded one of these lucrative logistics contracts. They’ve been selected as the first commercial provider for cargo deliveries to Gateway, a small space station that NASA intendeds to operate in lunar orbit. Considering SpaceX already has a contract to resupply the International Space Station, they were the ideal candidate to offer similar services for a future lunar outpost.

But that certainly doesn’t mean it will be easy. The so-called “Gateway Logistics Services” contract stipulates that providers must be able to deliver at least 3,400 kilograms (7,500 pounds) of pressurized cargo and 1,000 kilograms (2,200 pounds) of unpressurized cargo to lunar orbit. That’s beyond the capabilities of SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, which was only designed to service low Earth orbit.

To complete this new mission, the company is proposing a new vehicle they’re calling the Dragon XL that would ride to orbit on the Falcon Heavy booster. But even for this New Space darling, there’s not a lot of time to design, test, and build a brand-new spacecraft. To get the Dragon XL flying as quickly as possible, SpaceX is going to need to strip the craft down to the bare minimum.

Classically Inspired

Cygnus, operated by Northrop Grumman

So far we only have a single artist’s rendering of the Dragon XL to go by, but that’s already enough to learn a lot about how SpaceX is approaching this new lunar cargo craft. For one thing, it’s immediately obvious that the design is vastly different from either the original Dragon or its Crew Dragon counterpart. If anything, it looks far closer to Japan’s H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV) or Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus.

Which of course makes perfect sense. Like the HTV and Cygnus, Dragon XL isn’t designed to fly in the atmosphere. Traditional space capsules get their conical shape from the fact that they’re mounted at the tip of the booster on ascent, and essentially act as the rocket’s nosecone. But Dragon XL will be riding to space inside the cargo fairing of the Falcon Heavy, which means there’s no reason for it to have an aerodynamic shape.

While on the subject of shape, the keen observer may notice that the fuselage for the Dragon XL appears to be the same diameter of the Falcon Heavy second stage that’s releasing it. While it’s nothing more than conjecture at this point, some have theorized that the Dragon XL may in fact be a repurposed Falcon second stage with a propellant tank serving as a pressurized cargo compartment. This would save SpaceX the trouble of building new tooling for Dragon XL, and isn’t without precedent; Skylab was built from the upper stage of the Saturn V rocket.

Keeping it Simple

We can also see that the Dragon XL has no primary rocket engine, meaning the second stage of the Falcon Heavy will need to provide the energy for the trans-lunar injection (TLI) maneuver that will put it on course toward the Moon. Once the TLI burn has been completed, the Dragon XL can be released, and the smaller reaction control system (RCS) thrusters dotting the periphery of the craft would be used to eventually slow the craft down for its rendezvous with Gateway.

That’s not the only major component that’s missing. Since the Dragon XL won’t be landing back on Earth, it doesn’t need a heat shield or parachutes. It’s unclear what will actually happen to this spacecraft once its cargo mission is complete, though the Gateway Logistics Services contract does mention the possibility of returning cargo to Earth orbit. This could mean a stop at the International Space Station for offloading, after which it would presumably be commanded to reenter the Earth’s atmosphere in such a way that it will safely burn up over the ocean.

Deleting the engine, heat shield, and parachutes from the craft obviously saves mass, which in turn increases the amount of usable cargo Dragon XL can bring to Gateway. But more than that, it also greatly reduces the amount of time and effort it will take to design and test the spacecraft. With avionics and an RCS system pulled from the standard Dragon, and a fuselage which may be a spare Falcon upper stage, the majority of craft’s hardware can be pulled from SpaceX’s existing production line.

Ample Trunk Space

The current Dragon is capable of carrying bulky cargo in an unpressurized “trunk” that sits between the capsule and upper stage of the Falcon 9 booster. This is ideal for components which don’t need to be brought inside, such as antenna arrays or experiments that will be exposed to open space.

Cargo loaded in the Dragon’s unpressurized trunk.

This capability has been used to bring several large components to the International Space Station, such as the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) and the International Docking Adapter (IDA). It’s only natural that NASA would want the same capability of vehicles applying for a Gateway Logistics Services contract, as having multiple craft capable of transporting station components will expedite the assembly process.

So we know Dragon XL has a “trunk” of its own, but where is it? On a standard Dragon, we’d see an open cargo bay when looking at it from the rear, but in its place appears to be a docking port. From this we can surmise that the Dragon XL arrangement is likely opposite that of the standard Dragon: instead of a docking port in the front and trunk in the rear, the trunk must be located in the front of the spacecraft where it can’t be seen in the promotional render.

Given how large the payload fairing is on the Falcon Heavy, this arrangement could potentially allow for the Dragon XL to carry long objects that actually extend outside of the unpressurized bay. As long as the RCS system can compensate for the change in the center of mass, there’s no reason that this new spacecraft couldn’t act as a “tug” for large sections of Gateway.

Coming Soon?

So when will Dragon XL fly? As with many of the elements involved in NASA’s return to the Moon, it’s a moving target. According to the current timeline the core module for Gateway is supposed to be launched late in 2022, which would then be followed by several launches carrying additional modules. The first crewed mission to Gateway could theoretically happen by 2024, and at that point, NASA is going to need to start flying resupply missions for consumables.

Assuming NASA sticks to this schedule (which is far from certain), Dragon XL could be called into action by 2025 or so. This gives SpaceX just about as much time as they had to get the original Dragon ready after it was selected for the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services contract in 2006. Given the experience they’ve gained in the intervening years, and the fact that they can literally borrow components from the mainline Dragon, there should be no technical problems standing in the way of having this new vehicle ready to greet the first group of astronauts to call Gateway home.

58 thoughts on “SpaceX Offers NASA A Custom Moon Freighter

    1. As much as I like Tom Hanks he is way to old for the role. I want to see someone as young as the first astronauts that can afford the radiation exposure that these trips are going to demand.

  1. The big piece missing here is that SpaceX does not presently have a cryogenic upper stage. Starship is meant to be that. Given that Starship/Starlifter work, this is a reusable interplanetary vehicle which can be brought back to Earth after a primary mission of Starship – for example, a satellite launch. And certainly SpaceX is working furiously on Starship. Starship itself is supposedly an interplanetary vehicle, but a much larger one. It is a high-risk project and may not work.

    1. Don’t know if will work or not, but … you don’t know unless you try. And by setting tough goals, seemingly unsolvable problems can be solved/addressed. Usually there is new technology generated that can help extend our reach to the stars or even here on Earth. It’s a win win. Man needs something to conquer, or we will stagnate. Borrowing the phrase “To boldly go where no man has gone before”…. Man needs a ‘challenge’ to go reach forward.

      1. Why don’t we just seek out to build a new gaming computer in 5 years that is 100x as fast as anything we have now. Might not work, it is high risk, but we will probably learn some random, unstructured and unplanned things along the way which will make it worth it.
        This “spinoff” argument just doesn’t sit right with me. It could be used to argue for anything.

        1. General 2x increase (loosely moore’s law) every 18 months suggests you will get a 10x in 5 years without doing anything. Then by the 9th year you probably have your 100x increase.

        2. The concept of a gaming computer is itself a result of repurposing developments in other fields. Originally no one set out to make a computer that was really good at playing games on, they were developed for science and business. The point is that no one can predict the future, you set out to do something and maybe fail at that but accidentally learn something else. Like the discovery of penicillin. It is difficult to talk about looking forward because it only comes into focus looking backwards.

      2. The moonshot in the 60s was a challenge. The entire might of the greatest nation on Earth (and a few uh.. questionable German scientists) was behind that. SpaceX’s Mars plan is not only a challenge, it’s entirely unrealistic. Undeserving of being taken seriously. Maybe the moon rocket, but Musk’s Mars design simply can’t work. Ventures such as these are national or global in scale. It’s not rational to expect a private venture to accomplish them. LEO? Sure, still impressive too. A moon transit? Amazing, we’ll see. Within the realm of the sane. But Mars? Get out of here, Elon.

        1. “Ventures such as these are national or global in scale”

          I don’t disagree with your overall assessment, but I don’t think the above argument really holds today. The space race of the 60’s only existed as a means to prove which was the superior economic system – capitalism or communism. No such goal exists today. All nations today are together in one goal – enabling the few to amass the world’s wealth. Why would a nation take on such a task itself, when it can pay some corporation for access, thus killing two birds with one stone – accomplishing whatever task is desired and contributing ever more to the concentration of wealth?

          1. The Chinese have a few hundred million less people in poverty. In the US, over 40% of the population owns stocks. Capitalism increases the total amount of wealth, it’s not a zero sum game. Just because some people benefit more doesn’t mean the rest of us don’t. Unless you’re going to try to claim the amount of wealth in the world is the same as it was two hundred years ago when 90% of the population were farmers. You can keep being the naysayer while the rest of us work to improve the world.

          2. « Capitalism increases the total amount of wealth » Invention and hard work increases the amount of wealth. Capitalism is just one of the least worse systems we’ve figured out to organize/motivate all of that to work smoothly.

          3. Humans are explorers, it is only natural for us to dream of exploring space. SpaceX is making NASA look like The Three Stooges rocket company. Also poverty is relative and wealth is a state of mind. A person with a loving family is wealthy. There don’t you feel better now.

        2. The same was told about operating systems.
          “You need a big company to make operating system and it’s a very hard challenge, one person can maybe make some toy kernel but nothing more”. And now you are reading this site probably from a linux hosted server. Even microsoft uses linux as hosts for virtual machines with windows. The same was already said about many things Elon Musk did. He has many flaws, but he succeeds. He wanted to buy rocket from russians, but they laughed at him. Now he laughs at them. People said electric cars are toys, now tesla is valued more than some other automakers. By the way, he is the first person in the world to have a car beyond orbit of mars.

          1. First you should learn to do proper quotes, second an OS isn’t space rockets, third Elon Musk doesn’t design the things so he didn’t do them, fourth nobody sane said that about electric vehicles and Tesla is not the first mass produced electric car.

            The Internet was a mistake for giving idiots a platform.

          2. GM made a practical EV long before Tesla existed.
            The second generation EV1 had all of the features that made Tesla successful except for use of lithium ion cell technology but GM decided to ax the program.
            If they stuck with the program a few more years they probably would be the number one EV manufacture today.

        3. The details of the mars plan don’t matter. They’re just there to inspire people, it’s extremely unlikely it’s really how they’ll end up doing it.
          What does matter, is them reducing the cost of access to space by orders of magnitude with Starship. THAT will undeniably make Mars access much easier, and if you see how much they’ve lowered the cost of access to space with Falcon, there are reasons to think they’ll continue doing so with Starship … Then once that’s working, figuring out a Mars plan that’s more realistic than the naive current one they have, isn’t that hard …

        4. One thing to realise now is that many companies and their directors have more wealth and infrastructure in place to meet a goal than most nation states. Even the powerful and rich nations are often less able to meet such goals now as they don’t have the control of their economies they once did and still have to fund running the nation in question (generally by pumping money into the companies). A company can let the nations they operate in shoulder most of those troubles, own everything to make/design and operate whatever they choose and then change to a new task so much more easily than a government. Governments have to worry about being re-elected or they have to worry about not being overthrown, mass riots, international treaties, wars etc. A company doesn’t even need to care too much if the expertise or resources for their project doesn’t exist in the home base nation – they can span borders with relative ease!

          Heck just look at Mr Gates when was the last time he worked in the conventional enrich myself way and he is still one of the worlds richest individuals… Now pick somebody who still runs their own show and is similarly wealthy (or has the sponsorship of such a company etc) and it becomes possible for a dream like Mars that a nation state would find trying or even impossible to be done. Will it happen who can say, I suspect its over promised at the moment but its less insane than you suggest. And to me far more likely to be a company than a nation state that achieves such goals with the current state of international co-operation.

  2. Ah, that good ole space mantra. From a specie who is unable to control its own growth, quasi-blindly rushing into a wall, threatening its own existence by refusing to acknowledge its own place and dependence from its own ecosystem: It´s a bit presumptuous.

    Maybe a few canned humans will smash on some other celestial ball in their very very immediate neighbourhood, or survive a few planetary revolutions and that will be the last fart.

    And that space farce might even not happen because a nanometer-sized bit of parasitic information just got in the way, with unpredictable and potentially deep consequences…

    1. Wow! Kind of a group consciousness World view! The entire species is an ‘it’? But yes, so far it has been step forward step back step forward…. Apollo to the Moon, Skylab, ISS, Apollo to the Moon again….. then what? Newer space station? I’m not holding my breath until there is a Moon base.

  3. Perhaps the pressurized cargo capsule and “trunk” can be integrated to the Gateway.
    For instance, using the pressurized cargo capsule as a brig for astronauts that experienced a bad case of Shore Leave.

    1. It’s actually mentioned in the contract that, due to how long the supply vehicle is expected to be attached to Gateway, it might actually double as workable space or at least general storage. This is a bit like how they use B.E.A.M on the ISS; nobody is sleeping in there out of an abundance of caution, but they will certainly use it to store bags of trash and that sort of thing.

    1. I agree, Joe Kim did an amazing job with this. I love the Back to the Future nod with the wheels, and the motion blur of the running likes is excellent. Kudos Joe!

      I tweeted it out with an @SpaceX in there, feel free to do the same.

  4. “SpaceX has already been awarded one of these lucrative logistics contracts.”

    No one will know if it is a lucrative contract until the bottom line afterwards. And I think ‘lucrative’ is from ‘lucre’, a dirty of dishonorable profit. I would say poor choice in this case. Is it a “Cost plus” contract? How much is the plus part? The bigger the ‘plus’ the easier it is to borrow for whatever is needed during manufacture/construction.

    1. Root of words matter to those who know them ( if even to them … ). Nobody I know knows the “dirty” thing about “lucrative” therefore this isn’t meant by anyone when using the word … Therefore it is perfectly fine to use, it just means somebody’s making money …

  5. So what’s going to happen with that second stage after the TLI? They either have to drop it on the moon, or somehow arrange for a free return to earth to burn up. Otherwise it and all its brothers are going to be littering earth-moon space for all time, in basically chaotic orbits. I mean, space is big, but it still can’t be good practice to leave an unpredictable missile whizzing around the neighborhood forever.

      1. Maybe so. The TLI will get the second stage to the gateway orbit, like its payload, so why not? The engine is re-usable. Store it there until fuel arrives, then send it off to Mars or someplace. Or do like Skylab and turn the oxygen tank into habitable space.

        1. Exactly. If it gets to the point Starship flies up there, a single Starship’s converted interior would have many times the internal volume of the station by itself.

    1. We have tons of upper translunar stages whizzing around already. That part of space is so huge that it’s absolutely fine, no need to consider space junk control. That is just barely a concern in LEO; this area we’re talking is many orders of magnitude larger in volume. The likelihood of accidentally coming across something again out there is so vanishingly low, it’s not sane to take it into account for risk management.

      Also, most of them quickly get ejected into a solar orbit by the dynamics of the Earth-Moon system. Nobody really needs to worry about a chunk of discarded debris up there, even if we kept doing launches for ten thousand years. Rule number one: don’t underestimate the bigness of space.

      1. for translunar stages, it would be fairly easy to nudge their periapsis deep enough into Earth’s atmosphere that they would not be a problem…but they have to be designed with this in mind from the start.

    2. It won’t be making a braking burn when it gets to the Moon, so once it gets close enough it should pick up a gravity assist that will put it in a very different orbit than Gateway or anything else out there.

      On paper it’s probably possible to use the gravity of the Moon to slow it down into a Earth orbit with low enough periapsis to hit the atmosphere. But that seems more dangerous (I.E. sending a dead stage back towards the Earth for an uncontrolled reentry) than just flinging it out into deep space.

  6. ” instead of a docking port in the front and trunk in the rear, the trunk must be located in the front of the spacecraft”. So… this thing has a Frunk? #SecondTeslaInSpace

  7. “…one person…”

    You lost me there.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m a Linux fan (not only reading this site from a Linux hosted server, but on a Linux workstation), but…

    – When Linus Torvalds started off his endeavour (and he’s an extremely brilliant guy) most of the needed user space and toolchain was in place, most of it courtesy of GNU
    – shortly after, an impressive number of people jumped in with enthusiasm
    – a competing project (386BSD, initiated by Lynne & Bill Jolitz, to become FreeBSD) was severely hampered by AT&T copyright harrassing over network code, giving Linux some headstart.

    The rest is history. Today, many thousands of people contribute to the Linux kernel (I haven’t figures, sorry, and LWN is currently unreachable from my neck of the woods).

    One person. Hah.

    What’s impressive, though, is Linus Torvalds’s capability at keeping such an enormous herd of cats together (coupled to his capability at designing and writing good programs).

  8. Artemis? Nope!

    The pendulum is always swinging. All of this lunar effort will get thrown away when the Democrats take over.
    Then we will get a new effort in the general direction of Mars for 4-8 years starting nearly from scratch of course.
    Which will be thrown away too when the pendulum swings back to the Republicans.
    And repeat ad nauseam.

    The only effective space mission is going to be the one where all the politicians are kicked out of the air-lock.

    Not that I agree with the Republicans on much else but I wish they would just settle on the moon and carry through.
    Don’t get me wrong, Mars would be great but it will take so much effort to go there it will just end up being another boots-on-the-ground then shut down and rot for 50 years scenario just like Apollo.

    To make real progress we have to actually stay.

    My preference would be first, a lunar space station. If it’s in a stationary orbit then put it half-way between “earth side” and the “dark side”. Folllow this up quickly, before political support wanes with a base on the far side. I know it’s harder but it must be on the far side. That’s the only place in the solar system that is always shielded from terrestrial interference. That makes it the one place that is actually useful to be, even before our great great great grandchildren finally manage to achieve sustainability.

    Build the mother of all radio telescopes there. That way we can get experience with running an off-world base AND accomplish something else at the same time.

    A future generation can take that experience to Mars.

Leave a Reply

Please be kind and respectful to help make the comments section excellent. (Comment Policy)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.