The modern space race has started with sights set both to the moon and beyond, to earth's red neighbor, Mars. As NASA and other private companies race to get there and build the technology necessary, a significant amount of planning is being spent on developing a sustainable pathway into deep space.
One of the steps to the moon and Mars that NASA has laid is something called the Lunar Gateway, an outpost that stays in constant orbit around the moon. The lunar gateway will be a docking hub for astronaut expeditions as they move on to their final mission, be that the lunar surface or beyond. This gateway will take the form of a sort of space station, similar to the ISS but on a much smaller scale.
The Artemis missions, NASA's crewed spaceflight program with the goal of returning astronauts to the moon by 2024, will leverage the lunar gateway to achieve that goal. Notably, the Artemis missions have the goal of landing the first woman on the moon by 2024, so the development of the lunar gateway needs to rapidly progress to meet that tight timeline. But what exactly makes up the lunar gateway itself?
Building the Gateway
The development of a lunar outpost has long been a discussion of top NASA researchers and scientists, as it seems to be a necessary and beneficial component of an increased human presence in space. While the idea of a lunar orbiting outpost has been around for over 10 years now, proposals for the design of the outpost have been in review for about the last four. Engineers at the Space Missions Analysis Branch or SMAB at the Langley Research Center have spearheaded the development of the lunar gateway concept so far.
However, as the gateway project is now slated to move beyond a concept, engineering teams at the Kennedy Space Center in Houston are taking a more central role.
Believe it or not, though, the future of the gateway was called into question earlier in 2020 when it was removed from NASA's official roadmap to the moon for the Artemis projects. However just shortly after making that announcement, the gateway was re-added and is now in the final stages of development to launch into lunar orbit by 2023.
The operational plan for the gateway is for it to function as a miniature space station that can dock with the Orion spacecraft. The Orion craft will function as a lunar ferry that takes the astronauts to and from the Gateway.
Researchers are spending a great deal of effort examining exactly how astronauts will interact with the gateway project as it's likely that many will spend time aboard the craft as they wait to carry out the rest of their mission.
While the ISS and the lunar gateway are similar in that they both will house astronauts for some time, their distance from earth stands as a stark difference. The International Space Station orbits Earth at about 220 miles above the surface, whereas the lunar gateway is slated to orbit the moon, 250,000 miles away from earth. This presents additional challenges, such as exposure to increased radiation from space.
The path to building the gateway is also one of the parts.
The gateway is designed as a modular system of components, meaning that different parts of it will be launched and assembled separately. It's slated for a 15-year lifespan, over which it will consistently be added to and upgraded to ensure constant mission readiness.
By 2023, the gateway is expected to consist of a power unit and the HALO unit, which stands for Habitat and Logistics Outpost, which will house astronauts for short periods. By 2025, the Gateway is planned to be capable of supporting month-long stays for astronauts.
What is the current status of the lunar gateway?
NASA's plan for lunar landings in the 2020s is constantly evolving, particularly as funding changes and operational strategy shifts. As mentioned before, the fate of the Lunar Gateway project was thrown into question in March of 2020. Statements from high-ranking NASA officials noted that the gateway would not be necessary to land people on the moon in 2024, but the agency now appears to have backtracked on those statements.
In March, NASA said the concept was scuttled because the Lunar Gateway project would be too expensive and too risky to accomplish on the planned timeline. However, in the same statement, they mentioned that the Gateway project would still be needed for future missions, so much of the messaging was unclear as to what was actually happening to the lunar station earlier this year.
These statements were revised in May and now plans are underway to launch the Lunar Gateway in 2023, shoving the gateway project back into the vital path to a manned moon landing this decade.
NASA's plan to get to the moon is part of a two-phased approach laid out by Vice President Pence, notably that we should get to the moon initially by 2024, and be in a position for sustained visits by 2028. Prior to the Trump presidency, NASA's plan was to get BACK to the moon by 2028.
"Our current ISS partners will provide important contributions to Gateway, comprising advanced external robotics, additional habitation, and possibly other enhancements. Canada announced in February 2019 its intention to participate in the Gateway and contribute advanced external robotics. In June 2020, the Canadian Space Agency announced its intention to award a contract to MDA to build the Canadarm3 for Artemis deep space missions. In October 2019, Japan announced plans to join the United States on the Gateway with contributions of habitation components and logistics resupply. In November 2019, the European Space Agency (ESA) received authorization and funding to support its planned contributions to the Gateway including habitation and refueling. In October 2020, ESA signed an agreement with NASA to contribute habitation and refueling modules and enhanced lunar communications to the Gateway. ESA also provides two additional European Service Modules (ESMs) for NASA’s Orion spacecraft. Russia has also expressed interest in cooperating on the Gateway."
For now, the lunar gateway that we will see implemented by 2023 will consist of two main units, the Power and Propulsion Element, or PPE, and the HALO, as mentioned before.
When the Lunar Gateway was initially canceled back in March of 2020, the cost was cited as one of the main reasons that the project had to be scuttled. However as the project is now back in the spotlight, the way that the cost problem was solved hasn't really been addressed.
All this plays into the grander question of how likely the Artemis program will keep to its planned launch schedule. There are just 4 years to go until we are supposed to be back on the moon, with the Gateway as a vital step, but everything still seems to be in flux. This could largely be due to the fact that funding is still tight for NASA and accomplishing a task as lofty as landing man on the moon again is not cheap.
NASA has requested $25.3 billion in the 2021 fiscal year and projects that an additional $35 billion will be needed over the next 5 years for the Artemis missions, totaling $71 billion slated to be spent for the project.
All of these budget requests come at a bad time too, as the US has been battling the coronavirus for most of 2020 with trillions being spent on stimulus and other important challenges. Getting congress to raise the budgets of NASA, a historically hard sell, won't be easy. So for now, NASA is taking things one step at a time.