NASA has spent the past six years building the massive Space Launch System rocket, but other than general claims of a “Journey to Mars,” the agency hasn’t provided many details about how the SLS booster would be used for it. That situation began to change Tuesday, when Bill Gerstenmaier, the agency’s chief of manned spaceflight, briefed the agency’s advisory board on preliminary plans for the rocket’s first 12 launches.
During his presentation, Gerstenmaier presented slides outlining the assembly of a “deep space gateway” and subsequent testing of a “deep space transport” system near the moon. The succession of missions would culminate in 2033 with a manned mission to orbit Mars, but not to land. While Gerstenmaier didn’t know how much money would be required for such a series of events — which would certainly be significant and would require support from the Trump administration — Tuesday’s presentation nevertheless offered an illuminating glimpse into NASA’s plans for the future.
Gateway to deep space
After a first test flight of the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft in 2018 and a second launch of the rocket to send the Europa Clipper spacecraft to the Jupiter moon in 2022, the space agency is set to begin construction of an outpost in cislunar space, near the moon. . This facility would be smaller than the International Space Station and likely derived from one of six deep space habitat concepts NASA is currently studying. Astronauts would maintain the station, but not stay there year-round.
NASA would need three SLS launches to assemble the gateway, likely over a period of time from 2023 to 2025. The first launch would provide a 40kW power and propulsion system (primarily high-performance electric propulsion) to cislunar space, providing a crew of four astronauts would do. deployed during a mission of eight to 21 days. A second launch would deliver the habitation module itself, again during a crewed launch. And a final launch would deliver the logistics module for the gateway.
Future flights to the gateway would add airlocks and other facilities that would allow visits from NASA astronauts and international and private crew members. Both Gerstenmaier and another NASA official, Jim Free, stressed the importance of international and commercial cooperation in such a facility. “This program will require a significant contribution from the private sector and international partners,” said Gerstenmaier. “We’re creating a framework, but making this real requires real participation from others.”
Essentially, NASA now appears to be asking academia, the private sector and other national space agencies for ideas on how to build and operate the lunar outpost.
Transport in deep space
After establishing the gateway in the mid-2020s, NASA would next develop a transportation system for human travel beyond the Earth-Moon system. The main component would be a 41-ton spacecraft with power systems and a housing module to provide all the food, health and science needs of astronauts for long-duration deep space missions. According to Gerstenmaier’s maps, which he stressed are preliminary, this transport system could be launched as early as 2027.
Following the delivery of an additional logistics module, NASA would plan to send a crew of four astronauts on a “cash register” mission aboard the transport vehicle around 2029; they would spend between 300 and 400 days in space, near the moon. The idea would be to test all systems on the new spacecraft to make sure they’re ready for a long journey to Mars.
“In 2029, we’re ready to do a verification flight, essentially having the crew stay near the moon to simulate about a year of activity on the way to Mars,” Gerstenmaier said Tuesday. “That verifies that the vehicle you’re going to take to Mars has been functioning for a year and is ready to meet the three-year requirement.”
If all of these systems worked, NASA would launch additional logistics and fuel for the transport vehicle in the early 2030s. Then, in 2033, the space agency believes it would be ready for a Mars-orbiting mission, which would likely involve a flyby of Venus and a brief sojourn around Mars. This flight could last up to three years and offers no hope of an emergency return once the crew leaves cislunar space.
Sense of urgency
If all this sounds ambitious, it certainly is for an agency that currently doesn’t even have the capacity to launch its own astronauts to the International Space Station. But this has long been NASA’s plan to largely complete work on its SLS and Orion (a crew-transport capsule to and from the Moon) spacecraft and prove their technical prowess, before giving details of how they will be used. .
However, decisions need to be made soon. Part of the reason Gerstenmaier spoke publicly about these plans on Tuesday is that the agency needs to start deciding what hardware will fly on the deep space gateway assembly missions in 2023 through 2025. Specifically, which power systems and which habitats are best suited for the job? “We’re ready to put pencils to paper and cut hardware for these missions,” he said.
NASA is also trying to convince the Trump administration that it has a good plan for sending people into space. Vice President Mike Pence will likely have a few reservations about Gerstenmaier’s plan. First, there will be no human missions before about 2023, and Trump officials have made it clear that before the end of the president’s first term, in 2020, they would like to see some form of human activity beyond low Earth orbit. mention of cost, an important factor for a government seeking to limit non-military discretionary spending. Finally, the Trump administration may still seek a stronger role for commercial partners in any venture, including greater use of privately owned missiles and spacecraft as opposed to the more expensive government vehicles.
It is also not clear how Congress will respond during the upcoming budget cycle. Congress has supported SLS and Orion in a bipartisan fashion as those programs have supported jobs in key space states, including Alabama, Florida, Colorado, Texas and more. But as the focus of spending shifts to deep-space habitats and transportation systems, will Congress be just as eager to support major spending that may not favor traditional contractors? (So far it has shown limited interest in technologies needed for Mars exploration).
However, if Congress doesn’t aggressively fund a deep space exploration plan, it will tell something about the body’s motivations. They forced NASA to build the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft at a cost of more than $40 billion. If Congress then fails to provide enough funds to use these vehicles, it recognizes that the programs have always been jobs programs.
List image by NASA