NASA has finally delivered on what it promised Congress last year, a “National Space Exploration Campaign Report” meant to offer a road map for American space exploration through the 2030s. While noticeably light on details, the report does offer a clear picture of NASA’s path as a new decade approaches.
Chief among those priorities is the Lunar Gateway, a potential space station around the moon, which we’ve been covering in detail. The document mentions the Gateway 26 times in its 21 pages, and describes it as “a lunar orbiting platform to host astronauts farther from Earth than ever before and forge U.S. leadership and presence in the region between the Moon and Earth,”
Vice President Pence, who heads up the National Space Council, has backed the Gateway, as has NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. NASA hopes to have it in orbit by 2026. “There’s no other architecture that I’ve been presented with, given the current budgets we have, that enables all of what we want to do,” Bridenstine told Ars Technica earlier this month. “And so I came to the conclusion that the Gateway is the right approach.”
There is no shortage of ideas of what would happen onboard the Gateway. The report says, for example:
On the Gateway, America and her partners will prepare to transit deep space, validating new technologies and systems as we build the infrastructure to support missions to the surface of the Moon and prepare for the epochal journey to Mars. NASA also will study the effects of the deep space environment of the Gateway. We will learn how living organisms react to the radiation and microgravity environment beyond LEO [Low Earth Orbit]. The Gateway will serve as a critical laboratory to expand our knowledge in this area by hosting biological and biomedical studies in the deep space environment over longer periods than previously possible.
The Gateway also will be assessed as a platform for the assembly of payloads and systems, by robots or humans, for human and scientific exploration that leverages its unique vantage point in deep space. The Gateway will serve as a reusable command module for lunar vicinity and surface exploration. It will evolve to serve as a way station for the development of refueling depots, servicing platforms, and a sample return facility from the surface of the Moon and other bodies in support of science and commerce. At its fullest, the Gateway will take up 20 percent of the habitable volume of the ISS.
The Gateway would be built in space using materials carried by NASA’s forthcoming Space Launch System (SLS) deep space rocket as well as by commercial vehicles. The report is far less specific on the hows and whens of the Gateway’s arrival.
Page 12, for example, offers a “Critical Decisions and Milestones” timeline. In 2019, NASA plans to “determine appropriate Gateway requirements” including affordability. No estimates are given for a budget on the Gateway or any of its components. Many decisions about Gateway are left further down the road, in a “post-2024” section when the Gateway’s evolution will be assessed. There are also no discussions of international partners, something crucial to the International Space Station.
There are many critics of the Gateway, which was first introduced as a joint concept between Russian and American space programs in 2017. Many of these critics believe that creating a manned station is unnecessary for what the Gateway hopes to become, and that NASA would be be better off focusing on colonizing the moon.
While the report mentions human trips to Mars, there are even fewer details provided. A Martian landing is repeatedly described in terms like “audacious in its complexity.”
A timeline on page 19 looks at decisions to be made on robotic trips to Mars with soil samples, developing standards for space vehicles, and a variety of R&D-style proposals. When it comes to the actual trip, NASA says that “an eventual series of crewed Mars missions planned to start in the 2030’s and culminating in a surface landing” will occur.
NASA projects can take a long time to come to cohesion. Just ask anyone waiting for the James Webb Space Telescope.