NASA Plans to Park a Spacecraft in Lunar Orbit
Matthew Greenwood posted on December 06, 2019 |

NASA has a bold new plan to return to the moon with its Artemis program. One of its most important components will be the innovative but controversial lunar Gateway.

The Gateway will be a small spaceship in orbit around the moon that will serve as a waystation for humans on their way to the lunar surface and beyond—a sort of temporary home and office for astronauts.

In essence, it will be a smaller version of the International Space Station much farther away from Earth. It will be about the size of a studio apartment, whereas the ISS is as big as a six-bedroom house. While people can live on the ISS for more than a year, the Gateway would only host astronauts for up to three months at a time. It will have living quarters, a lab for experiments and ports for other spacecraft to dock.

When people aren’t aboard Gateway, state-of-the-art robots and computers will maintain the spacecraft and conduct experiments, sending the data back to Earth.

Gateway will be situated in a near-rectilinear halo orbit around the moon, a distant 250,000 miles away from Earth. That orbit would bring the outpost within 930 miles of the lunar surface at its closest and as far away as 43,500 miles from the moon. A six-day orbit would position the Gateway out of the moon’s shadow at all times, enabling constant communication with Earth.

The spacecraft will be assembled in lunar orbit. The components will be launched aboard a series of commercial rockets and self-assemble in high-lunar orbit. NASA anticipates it will take five or six such missions to get all the parts into place. Once assembly is complete, another rocket will transport an unoccupied lunar lander to connect to Gateway.

Finally, a massive Space Launch System (SLS) rocket will carry astronauts aboard an Orion spacecraft, which will dock with Gateway. Once on board, some of the astronauts will transfer to the lander and descend to the surface of the moon. After their mission, they’ll return to Gateway and climb back on board the Orion for the journey home.

Northrop Grumman has been tasked with building the habitation module, which will be based on the company’s already-proven Cygnus cargo craft that have conducted resupply missions to the ISS. The module is anticipated to be ready to launch in 2023. The company claims that the Cygnus will provide a proven and upgraded technology platform that can provide the habitat, logistics services and laboratory environment needed for the module.

NASA has also contracted Maxar Technologies to develop the power, propulsion and communications module. This component—a 50-kilowatt solar electric propulsion spacecraft three times more powerful than current capabilities—would function as a mobile command and service module. It would provide electricity and maneuvering capability for the Gateway station, though it wouldn’t be pressurized. The module is scheduled for liftoff in 2022.

A Human Outpost in Deep Space

NASA claims Gateway will provide crucial infrastructure near the moon not only for the agency’s work but also for the growing commercial space sector.

“What we want to do is enable more people to have access to the lunar surface than ever before, and more people to have access to lunar orbit than ever before,” said Jim Bridenstine, NASA administrator.

Gateway will also serve as an important incubator for the technologies that humans will need to get to Mars. For example, some life-support components have a life span of about six months before they fail. Gateway could help extend their usability for the 30-month failure targets needed for deep-space transport.

Instead of a series of one-shot missions to the moon, Gateway would help NASA establish a permanent presence beyond low-earth orbit.

“We want to go to stay,” Bridenstine said. “Gateway allows us to take advantage of commercial and international partners in a more robust way so that we are there to stay. It enables us to get to more parts of the moon than ever before, and it enables us to get to Mars.”

NASA’s grand plans for returning to the moon.

Is Gateway the Right Way?

Gateway has some high-profile critics, including Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin and former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin.

“Putting a Gateway before boots on the moon is, from a space-systems engineer’s standpoint, a stupid architecture,” Griffin said. “Gateway is useful when, but not before, we are manufacturing propellant on the moon and shipping it up to a depot in lunar orbit. We should be, with all deliberate speed, returning to the moon and learning how to utilize the resources of our nearest Earth-orbit object.”

Aerospace Engineer Robert Zubrin of the Mars Foundation has also been especially vocal in his criticism.

“If you wanted to send people to the moon or Mars, would you take some of your money to build a lunar orbit space station on the way? You would not,” he said.

Zubrin and other critics argue that Gateway’s purpose is to retroactively justify NASA’s investments in the expensive SLS and Orion, which they claim are just not powerful enough to go to the moon or Mars.

“This is not a purpose-driven program; this is a vendor-driven program,” Zubrin said.

Will Gateway extend humanity’s footprint further into deep space or end up a billion-dollar boondoggle to justify the existence of the SLS and Orion? We’ll know within the next decade when humans are supposed to put boots back on lunar soil.

Read more about NASA’s ambitious plan at Breaking Down NASA’s Hardware For Returning Astronauts to the Moon.

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