NASA selected SpaceX to deliver the first two segments of the moon-orbiting Lunar Gateway space station on Wednesday, the second high-profile contract the government agency awarded the private aerospace manufacturer this week.
During the newly-announced flight, which is currently slated to take place “no earlier than” May of 2024, a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket will launch the first two elements of the planned outpost as one integrated payload that will include Gateway’s Power and Propulsion Element (PPE) and its Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO).
The Gateway space station, which will be roughly one sixth the size of the International Space Station, is being planned as an extension of NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to “support research investigations, crew, and expeditions to the lunar surface.”
Although NASA had originally planned to launch the PPE and HALO segments separately atop two distinct rockets, the agency’s inspector general wrote in a report released last year that it had decided to launch the two segments together in an effort to cut costs. While it was initially a concern that the combined payload might be too heavy for the commercially available rockets, a NASA spokeswoman confirmed to The Verge that Falcon Heavy had satisfied all of the agency’s performance requirements.
The mission is reportedly set to cost NASA $331.8 million — more than three times the price tag of a separate contract the agency awarded to SpaceX earlier this week to launch its SPHEREx astrophysics mission.
Once the Gateway is established, a service module carrying key life support elements — including oxygen, water, electricity and temperature controls — will be launched during NASA’s second planned flight of its new megarocket, the Space Launch System (SLS). That mission, known as Artemis 2, will be the first crewed mission among the Artemis programs.