Last week NASA announced awards to three companies to develop Lunar Landers as part of the Artemis Program. But the space agency did not 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 scientific experiments. It will also function as a stop for potentially stashing fuel and a temporary habitat for humans.
NASA’s primary mandate from the White House is to land humans on the Moon by 2024, and for now the space agency is working through the details of how that will happen. One aspect of the lunar lander awards worth noting is that NASA and its contractors will spend the next 10 months finalizing their plans, and from this process they will collectively determine the fastest, best path to the Moon by 2024.
That may involve staging the first human landing from the Gateway, in high lunar orbit, or it may not. But in an interview with Ars, both NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and the space agency’s chief of human spaceflight, Doug Loverro, said the Gateway was an essential part of NASA’s long-term plans to not only to return humans to the Moon but to do so in a sustainable manner.
The agency’s current timeline entails launching the nucleus of the Gateway 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 competitively bid. But NASA has already studied the combined Gateway to ensure that at least one rocket flying today—SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy booster—could loft it to lunar orbit.
“We assured ourselves that it could be done 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 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 could be more than one option, but we had to verify at least one.”
Assembling the two initial elements of the Gateway on the ground reduces risk and saves the space agency money, Loverro said. “Quite frankly, it creates a much better foundation for the future,” he said. “So we’re really happy about that one.”
In an interview with Ars in March, NASA’s program manager for the Gateway, Dan Hartman, said the space agency is continuing 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 kind of a combination with ESA in the lead but with JAXA supplying components for that,” he said. “The Canadians are providing the robotic devices, which is certainly the bigger arm, and then they’ll have some dexterous capability as well. One element that we are still kind of under a lot of discussion on is the airlock, and we’ve reached out to Roscosmos for that.”
These elements will probably be delivered and installed at the Gateway sometime during the second half of the 2020s, depending on international partner funding, development snags, and the readiness of the Gateway itself.