SpaceX Dragon XL could supply NASA astronauts around the Moon and Earth

SpaceX’s Moon Dragon may one day deliver supplies to astronauts in Earth orbit above their Reason to be – resupply of the future NASA lunar space station (Gateway).

Known as Dragon XL, the new SpaceX spacecraft was unexpectedly revealed earlier this year when NASA awarded it only a potentially billion-dollar Gateway Logistics Services contract. Dragon XL is built almost entirely with hardware and systems already built and tested with Cargo Dragon and Crew Dragon in more than 20 space station launches and two orbital missions, respectively.

However, due to NASA’s ever-changing plans and strategies, it is far from guaranteeing that a livable Gateway will ever be built, let alone because of the tough 2024 target that is currently favorable. Since a lot of Dragon XL has already been technically developed, its development should be a bit easier when it comes to SpaceX programs. As such, Dragon XL could be ready to fly months or even years before any lunar space station is in place with astronauts to take advantage of it. That possibility begs the question: does NASA plan for SpaceX to conduct a Dragon XL flight test before its debut on the lunar charge?

Dragon XL is designed to refuel a lunar space station like the one shown here, but could also be used with the International Space Station. (Northrop Grumman)

In the surprising case that NASA have staged a demo mission before Dragon XL’s first mission-critical lunar refueling launch, a cargo trip to Earth’s International Space Station (ISS) could be a valuable segment. Indeed, a high-volume merger of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Cargo Dragon 2 spacecraft, Dragon XL will lose the ability to return payload to Earth’s surface (downmass) in exchange for a dramatic increase in the useful mass of payload.

According to NASA, Dragon XL is designed to deliver up to 7.6 tons (~ 16,800 lb) of cargo – 5 pressurized tons, 2.6 non-pressurized tons – to the lunar portal and weigh no more than 14 metric tons upon arrival. Compared to Cargo Dragon 1 and 2, XL offers a 25-50% improvement. As an expendable spacecraft, Dragon XL is likely to be much simpler and lighter than SpaceX’s recoverable and reusable Dragon pods, it is also reasonable to assume that the new spacecraft could also be substantially cheaper. Finally, thanks to that massive 14-ton Gateway target, it is conceivable that a recoverable Falcon 9 booster could launch a fully loaded Dragon XL to the ISS without issue, making the cost of launch more or less identical to any other mission Dragon.

Cargo Dragon 1 completed its twentieth and final ISS mission earlier this year. (POT)
Cargo Dragon 2, a modified version of the Crew Dragon shown here, is expected to launch for the first time no sooner than the fourth quarter of 2020. (POT)

On the other hand, however, Dragon XL’s mission is substantially different, and in some ways more challenging, than the Dragons it’s built with. In particular, the deep space environment can be substantially more challenging from both a thermal and radiation management standpoint, while propulsion maneuvers, operations, and autonomous docking so far from Earth would be the first to SpaceX. A demo mission to the International Space Station (ISS) would fail to put Dragon XL in any of those untested scenarios.

Excluding a demonstration mission to the ISS, a Dragon XL released by Falcon 9 could serve as a cheap extra option for NASA to deliver large volumes of supplies, hardware, and experiments to the space station, complementing reuse and load-reduction capabilities. from Dragon. Of course, there is no current contract that allows SpaceX to fly Dragon XL out of two replenishment missions to the Lunar Gateway, but NASA is by no means reluctant to the idea according to Mark Wiese, manager of Gateway Deep Space Logistics.

Ultimately, the probability that Dragon XL will be co-opted for ISS cargo delivery is low, but there is a clear possibility that NASA will exploit its substantial investment in the new SpaceX spacecraft for more than just two supply paths. from Gateway.

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