In a brand new Request For Data (RFI) quietly launched by NASA on April Fools’ Day, the area company seems to have not directly requested SpaceX to find out the destiny of its ‘Dragon XL’ lunar cargo spacecraft.
In March 2020, NASA introduced that it had chosen SpaceX to ship the majority of pressurized and unpressurized cargo it will must crewed and function a proposed “Gateway” lunar area station for the primary a number of years of its existence. To perform that process, SpaceX would develop a heavily-modified single-use model of its Dragon 2 spacecraft with extra propellant storage, more room for cargo, and a variety of different design adjustments.
Often known as Dragon XL, that spacecraft would weigh round 15 to 16 tons (~33,000-35,000 lb) at liftoff and certain require a completely or partially expendable Falcon Heavy launch for every mission to the Moon. On the time, it was a reasonably balanced and cheap selection on NASA’s half, leveraging current investments and expertise with SpaceX and Dragon and erecting no main technical hurdles. Nonetheless, greater than two years later, NASA nonetheless hasn’t began work on the contract.
That’s why the new April 1st RFI is so intriguing. NASA begins by referencing fantastic print within the authentic 2018 Gateway Logistics Providers (GLS) Request For Proposals (RFP) that permits the company to proceed receiving and contemplating new proposals from new and current suppliers all through this system’s deliberate 17-year lifespan. The company says its main motivations are for “info and planning functions, to request suggestions, to advertise competitors,” and to “[determine] whether or not to conduct an on-ramp in 2022.” NASA doesn’t specify what precisely which means, however within the context of the remainder of the textual content, it seems that the company needs to make use of this RFI to assist decide whether or not or to not lastly “on-ramp” its current Dragon XL contract with SpaceX.
Nonetheless, the doc will get much more attention-grabbing and suggestive. Later, NASA spells out what precisely it needs respondents to debate. In a listing of eight major questions, the company repeatedly hints at a want to considerably increase the scope of GLS. In query #8, NASA asks if, to assist “create a vibrant provide chain in deep area,” respondents would be capable to ship extra cargo to “cislunar orbits [and] the lunar floor” or provide a “devoted supply tug functionality” or “speedy response supply service.”
NASA additionally asks for info on methods potential GLS suppliers might “[minimize] the fee influence of…requirement adjustments,” “cut back working prices,” and “decrease upfront prices.” In questions #2 and #3, NASA requests particulars about “new and/or progressive capabilities” that might “considerably improve…cargo supply capability” inside “the following 5 years” and states that “offerors exceeding the minimal [cargo] capabilities could also be seen extra favorably.”
NASA appears very within the potential advantages of different deep area cargo transport providers which can be each cheaper and extra succesful than Dragon XL. Between the strains, nonetheless, the RFI additionally reads as if it was written on to SpaceX. The primary query is maybe essentially the most telling: “Is your organization eager about on-ramping to the GLS contract to offer Logistics Providers as described within the authentic solicitation?”
SpaceX is the one firm with an current GLS contract that it might “on-ramp to” – a roundabout approach to say “begin work on”. Within the following questions, NASA then repeatedly expresses curiosity in cargo transport capabilities effectively past the unique contract’s necessities and asks about progressive new capabilities that might allow such enhancements. NASA even “acknowledges” and hints at a willingness to think about unorthodox options that, for instance, would possibly require “a couple of launch” per cargo supply or assist “decrease upfront prices to the Authorities.” Put merely, whereas it does open the door for nearly any US firm to tell NASA about new GLS choices, it’s exhausting not to conclude that this new RFI is at the very least partially designed to present SpaceX a chance to suggest Dragon XL alternate options or upgrades.
The obvious choice: Starship. By way of the Human Touchdown System (HLS) program, NASA has already dedicated to investing at the very least $3 billion to develop a crewed Starship Moon lander and the fully-reusable launch automobile and refueling infrastructure required to launch and function it. With barely any modification, the Starship structure SpaceX and NASA are already creating might be used to ship dozens of tons of pressurized cargo to cislunar area, lunar orbit, the Gateway, the lunar floor, or simply about anyplace else NASA needs. Leveraging that vital funding would additionally tick nearly each field in NASA’s new RFI by drastically decreasing upfront and whole improvement prices, serving to to stimulate a “vibrant” deep area provide chain, and beating Dragon XL’s cargo capabilities by an element of 5, 10, and even 20+.
In fact, there are technical challenges and causes to imagine that Starship can’t simply exchange Dragon XL. Even Dragon XL risked working into Gateway’s visiting automobile mass restrict of simply 14 tons. Starship would seemingly weigh at the very least 100-200 tons – greater than all the Gateway. Dragon XL would use non-cryogenic propellant and is baselined to spend at the very least 6-12 months at a time on the Gateway. NASA has additionally studied the opportunity of utilizing Dragon XL as a crew cabin or toilet to briefly relieve Gateway’s extraordinarily cramped liveable quantity. Starship’s major engines use cryogenic propellant that wishes nothing greater than to heat up and boil into gasoline, making it far tougher to maintain on the station for months at a time. These issues are seemingly solvable, however it’s nonetheless price noting that Starship is just not an ideal match proper out of the field.
The RFI might additionally finish with a whimper if SpaceX merely tells NASA that it’s joyful to proceed with Dragon XL as proposed. Solely time will inform. NASA is planning to carry an trade day on April twentieth to higher clarify the RFI’s objectives and needs responses by Could thirty first, 2022, after which the company will determine whether or not or to not comply with up with a solicitation or on-ramp Dragon XL.