With NASA focusing its efforts on returning to the moon sometime in the coming years, the space agency announced earlier this week that it will be awarding its first contract for its lunar space station in 2019. This was part of a broader roadmap unveiled in relation to President Donald Trump’s earlier directive to prioritize moon missions before potential missions to Mars.
As explained in a report from Bloomberg, NASA’s Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway will serve as a staging area for science experiments to be conducted during future moon missions. Given NASA’s future plans to explore Mars, the station is also designed to act as a “way station” for astronauts traveling to and from the Red Planet, the report added.
Speaking at the Space Symposium conference in Colorado Springs, NASA Associate Administrator William Gerstenmaier explained how the agency will spend toward the upcoming lunar space station. Initial expenditures in 2019 will go toward power and propulsion features, with habitation components as the next priority.
According to Gerstenmaier, the above components are expected to be launched to the moon in that exact order sometime in 2022. He believes this will allow the lunar space station to start orbiting the moon about three years later, with a team of four astronauts staying aboard the platform for 30-day missions.
Specifically, the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway’s main purposes are to help NASA as it hopes to have another astronaut land on the moon, and to find out whether water near the moon’s surface could be used for deep-space missions as an ingredient for spacecraft propellant. As noted by Space.com, the late Eugene Cernan was the last man on the moon, having walked the lunar surface during the Apollo 17 mission in 1972.
Also of particular interest to NASA are the nuances of the moon’s gravity, which could be instrumental in reducing re-entry speeds to Earth for spacecraft making back-and-forth trips to Mars.
“We want to understand orbital mechanics around the moon a little better, far from the Earth’s deep gravity well,” said Gerstenmaier.
“Doing things in this region, where gravity isn’t such a big driver … is a different way of operating.”
— Bloomberg (@business) April 20, 2018
Once the lunar space station is ready for use, astronauts will be sent to the platform via the Orion, which is being assembled by Lockheed Martin, with a service module courtesy of the European Space Agency. While the Orion will ultimately be used as the platform’s command deck, it will first be sent on an unmanned first flight sometime in 2019.
NASA’s new roadmap is in line with President Trump’s budget proposal for 2019, which requires the space agency to work toward returning to the moon as a first priority. In a March news release, Gerstenmaier said that lunar travel will “play an important role” as NASA hopes to venture further into the solar system, adding that the upcoming lunar space station will also help “usher in a new era of exploration of the moon and its resources,” and prepare the agency for its plans to launch crewed missions to Mars.