If you have ever dreamed of a future spent exploring the cosmos and spreading humanity’s reach to the farthest corners of the galaxy, then we have great news for you: your dream is nearly reality.
NASA has big plans to start building a lunar-orbit space station within the next half-decade. Formerly known as the “Deep-Space Gateway,” the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (LOP-G) is designed as all-in-one, solar-powered outpost for communications, laboratories, short-term habitation, and rover and other machinery storage. The proposed components for the Gateway are currently:
- Power and Propulsion Element (PPE): Weighing in at 55 tons, PPE will generate electricity and solar electric propulsion for the station. It is currently scheduled to be the first component launched, which is expected to take place in 2022.
- European System Providing Refuelling, Infrastructure and Telecommunications (ESPRIT): The ESPRIT module provides additional propellant storage, advanced lunar telecommunications technology, and an airlock.
- U.S. Utilization Module: This small, pressurized module will allow for initial food storage and habitation for the first stages of the Gateway’s assembly sequence. It will launch with ESPRIT.
- International Partner Habitat and U.S. Partner Habitat: As the names imply, these are two individual living quarters that make up 1942 cubic feet of pressurized, habitable space for crew members. The modules feature environmental control and life support, fire detection and suppression, and water storage and distribution. NASA predicts that the Gateway will be able to accommodate astronauts by as early as the mid-2020’s.
- Gateway Logistics Modules: These modules will refuel and resupply the space station, among other logistical duties. One of the first Logistics Modules launched will be a robotic arm built by the Canadian Space Agency to berth vehicles and install payloads.
- Gateway Airlock Module: The airlock will allow for extravehicular spacewalks as well as later docking purposes.
NASA plans to construct and visit the Gateway with their Space Launch System (SLS) megarocket and Orion deep-space shuttle, both of which are still undergoing development. The SLS maiden launch has been delayed twice to a new expected date of June 2020.
The Gateway is designed to support a maximum of four crew members in 30- to 90-day shifts, compared to the six crewmembers the Earth-orbiting International Space Station can accommodate for six to nine months at a time. The time and monetary expense required to reach the Gateway will make U.S. visits limited for some time, but NASA envisions the Gateway as an international enterprise; crews from other nations are welcome to make use of the station as well, provided they bring their own supplies.
Although the psychological ramifications of living in deep-space for extended periods is still undergoing review, the Gateway will be contributing to scientific research year-round, with or without crew members aboard. Payloads will be inside, affixed outside, and free-flying nearby the station as well as on the lunar surface. They will be automated to collect and deliver data, and thanks to its specifically-designed, six-day orbit, the station will never end up in the shadow of the moon, ensuring its constant communication with Earth.
We can expect a lot of new knowledge from the Gateway, but the most exciting thing about our future moonbase is this: the Gateway is really just a stepping stone for humanity’s next great leap to Mars. New lunar expeditions are a short-term goal leading up to the uncharted human expedition to Mars, since NASA wants to avoid the expenses and effort of sending crews—not to mention massive equipment—out of Earth’s gravitational pull. The idea is to send astronauts to the Gateway on SLS-Orion, adjust the orbit of the Gateway (made possible by PPE), and then use docked habitation-transportation systems designed for Mars to deliver them the rest of the way. When it’s time to return to Earth, the astronauts would use the same system to return to the Gateway and then board the SLS-Orion home. The moon makes the perfect pitstop.
How early can we hope to see humans step foot on Mars? Not anytime soon exactly, since NASA hasn’t been ambitious enough to set a date on those plans yet. What they have proposed instead is to send a crewed mission to orbit Mars by 2033, but not land on its surface. If this disappoints you, you still have plenty to look forward to in the next decade if everything goes according to plan. Besides the construction and launch of the Gateway itself, we can expect another lunar landing before the end of the 2020’s as well as an extensive, over 100-day test of the eventual Mars transport system.
Whatever the timeline, humanity’s ventures certainly won’t end at the moon.