Last week, NASA announced awards for three companies to develop Lunar Landers as part of the Artemis program. But the space agency didn’t say much about its “other” major program near the moon, a Lunar Gateway that will serve as a small space station that will be used to conduct science experiments. It will also act as a stopping point for potential fuel and a temporary habitat for people.
NASA’s primary White House mandate is to land humans on the moon by 2024, and for now, the space agency is working out the details of how that will happen. A notable aspect of the lunar lander award is that NASA and its contractors will spend the next 10 months finalizing their plans, and based on this process, they will jointly determine the fastest and best path to the moon by 2024.
That may mean organizing the first human landing from the Gateway, in high orbit around the moon, or it may not. But in an interview with Ars, both NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine and the head of human spaceflight Doug Loverro said the Gateway was an essential part of NASA’s long-term plans to not only return humans to the moon, but to do so. to do. in a sustainable way.
The agency’s current timeline includes launching the Gateway core in 2023, Loverro said. He also confirmed that the first two elements of the Gateway will be launched as an integrated unit. This means that the power and propulsion element built by Maxar and the pressurized Habitation and Logistics Outpost built by Northrop Grumman will be assembled together on the ground and then launched on a commercial rocket.
Can go on Falcon Heavy
By law, this launch must be offered competitively. But NASA has already studied the combined Gateway to ensure that at least one rocket flying today — SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy booster — could launch it into orbit around the moon.
“We assured ourselves that it was possible with the Falcon Heavy,” Loverro said. “We haven’t selected the launch vehicle yet, but we had to assure ourselves that there would be at least one vehicle for it. And so we know that the Falcon Heavy can do it, and we know that because they have to meet an Air Force Department of Defense requirement for an extended fairing, so there may be more than one option, but we had to verify at least one.”
Mounting the Gateway’s first two elements on the ground reduces the risk and saves the space agency money, Loverro said. “Honestly, it creates a much better foundation for the future,” he said. “So we’re very happy with that.”
In an interview with Ars in March, NASA’s program manager for the Gateway, Dan Hartman, said the space agency continues to work with international partners to build other components for the Gateway.
“We have the International-HAB, which we call the I-HAB, which is sort of a combination with ESA, but with JAXA providing components for that,” he said. “The Canadians are supplying the robotic devices, which is definitely the bigger arm, and then they’re going to have some dexterity too. One element that we still have a lot of discussion about is the airlock, and we’ve contacted Roscosmos about that.”
These elements are likely to be delivered and installed at the Gateway sometime in the second half of the 2020s, depending on international partner funding, development challenges and the readiness of the Gateway itself.