Nasaâ€™s goal of returning to the moon should see a major push in early 2019, when the agency awards its first contract for the lunar â€˜Gatewayâ€™ program. Photo: Bloomberg
Dallas: National Aeronautics and Space Administrationâ€™s (Nasa) goal of returning to the moon should see a major push in early 2019, when the agency awards its first contract for the lunar â€œGatewayâ€ program.
The Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway is Nasaâ€™s planned â€œstagingâ€ area intended for studies of the moon and the deep-space environment. Eventually, it will function as a way station for astronauts travelling to and from Mars.
Nasaâ€™s first spending for the platform will be for power and propulsion elements early next year, followed by habitation components, Associate Administrator William Gerstenmaier said at the Space Symposium conference in Colorado Springs, Colorado. They will probably be launched moonward, in that order, starting in 2022.
The platform should be orbiting the moon in 2025, said Gerstenmaier, a 41-year Nasa veteran who oversees human exploration and operations. It will carry a four-astronaut crew on 30-day missions, he said.
The Gateway would also further Nasaâ€™s goal of another human landing on the moon and will help determine whether water near the surface could be used to manufacture propellant for deep-space missions. The moonâ€™s gravity could also help a spacecraft reduce the blistering speeds used for six-month voyages back-and-forth to Mars, thus facilitating re-entry to Earthâ€™s atmosphere.
â€œWe want to understand orbital mechanics around the moonâ€ a little better, far from the Earthâ€™s deep gravity well, he said. â€œDoing things in this region, where gravity isnâ€™t such a big driver â€¦ is a different way of operating.â€
In November, Nasa selected five companies to study a high-power solar-electric propulsion system to use in deep-space missions, including the lunar platform. Future human missions will require a power system that has triple the capability of current designs.
Trips to the â€œgatewayâ€ will be aboard the Orion, a spacecraft being assembled by Lockheed Martin Corp., with the service module being supplied by the European Space Agency. The Orionâ€™s first flight, without crew, is scheduled for next year. The craft will serve as the command deck when itâ€™s docked with the platform.
â€œDevelopment of the gateway has great momentum, and we are providing our expertise as Nasa looks to industry to bring know-how to this important effort,â€ Lockheed said in an emailed statement.
The lunar platform is based on current Nasa budgets and â€œdoesnâ€™t require a huge new influx of funding,â€ Gernstenmaier said, calling realistic budget planning one of Nasaâ€™s strategic principles for how to pioneer deep-space missions. â€œItâ€™s got fiscal realism, and itâ€™s also adaptable,â€ he said of the program.
â€œIt can adapt to commercial partners. Itâ€™s not a rigid program of one mission following another,â€ an allusion to the Apollo program, which famously required an aggressive schedule of flights that built off each other. â€œAs long as we view the moon as a stepping stone and not an end goal, I think weâ€™re OK,â€ Gernstenmaier said.
Nasa is also assessing how to continue the US presence in low-Earth orbit. The Trump administration has proposed ending US funding of the International Space Station in 2024. â€œWe think itâ€™s a great place to do development,â€ Gerstenmaier said. â€œTo do major development in the vicinity of the moon is really costly.â€ Bloomberg