At a press conference, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine announced the new version of the agency’s plans to bring astronauts back to the Moon and build the Lunar Gateway over the next decade as steps to bring astronauts to Mars during the 2030s. Jim Bridenstine referred to the NASA budget for 2020, which at $21 billion sees an increase granted also to push ahead with these new plans.
It’s not news that NASA has plans to bring astronauts back to the Moon, so much so that in November 2018 its administrator Jim Bridenstine announced which private companies will provide their services to transport payloads to the Moon within the Commercial Lunar Payload program Services (CLPS). It was, however, the initial phase concerning cargoes, sending of human beings is a very different matter. For years, NASA has been developing its powerful Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion spacecraft, but the years of delays it accumulated and the billions of dollars spent beyond the initial budget are causing a lot of controversy. Now the agency expects to make the first launch, called Exploration Mission-1, in 2020, will it succeed?
All manned missions projects with more distant goals than the International Space Station are totally dependent on the development of the SLS/Orion pair. Shutting down the project and hoping that in the meantime SpaceX completes the development of its new Super Heavy/Starship, the pair already known as BFR/BFS, wouldn’t only constitute a big embarassment for NASA but would create serious political problems given that there are a lot of contractors across the USA that give work to many companies and as a result many lawmakers are happy. The increase in NASA’s budget can be seen as an indication that the development of SLS/Orion must be completed even if the development of its more powerful Block 1B version is postponed.
The plans include a number of missions with SLS/Orion and starting from 2022 the construction of the Lunar Gateway, also called Deep Space Gateway or Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (LOP-G), a space station close to the Moon even if not in the Moon’s orbit to use as a transit station for Moon mission and later for Mars missions. The project is decidedly smaller than the International Space Station and was compared to a mountain refuge offering shelter and a place to stock up supplies for passing astronauts. The Gateway can move depending on the needs of the missions.
The Lunar Gateway project will be developed together with the partner space agencies that already work together at the International Space Station: ESA, the Russian Roscosmos, the Japanese JAXA and the Canadian CSA. In fact, even the Orion spacecraft, despite being a NASA project, also includes ESA, which provided the service module, a development of the cargo spacecraft used by ESA in recent years.
The top image (NASA/ESA/ATG Medialab) shows an artist’s concept of the Orion spacecraft complete with the service module close to the Moon. The bottom image (NASA/ESA) shows a concept of the Lunar Gateway with the various modules provided by the space agencies involved in the project.
Some missions are planned to bring the first astronauts to the Gateway and automated spacecraft to the Moon to test the new systems that will be used in 2028 to bring humans back to our satellite. In recent weeks, NASA officially started looking for companies to work with for the development of those systems. The development of Moon missions is supposed to lead to a manned mission to Mars in the 2030s.
The project of the Lunar Gateway has already been criticized since it was announced by people who would prefer the construction of a permanent base on the Moon and by other people, including some former astronauts, who criticized its alleged usefulness. We’ll see how the project will develop, which can still be modified. Surely there will be more criticism and the SLS/Orion completion timeline is still to be verified.