NASA's Lunar Station Idea is Bad and Good

NASA’s lunar orbital platform-gateway will be either a necessary stage for landing on the moon, or worthless nonsense

When astronauts first sat on the moon half a century ago, they flew there in one stage: the Saturn-5 rocket launched the Apollo command, service and landing modules, and they entered a low lunar orbit. Then the landing module detached and sank to the surface. After spending 22 hours in the moon dust, astronauts from Apollo 11 climbed into the take-off module and returned to the command module to set off on the return trip.

NASA’s current plan to send astronauts to the moon, which could be implemented as early as 2024, is a little different. Several commercial rockets will launch into space the components of a small space station, which will then independently assemble in high lunar orbit. Another rocket will send an empty lunar lander there. Finally, the giant SLS rocket will launch the Orion spacecraft (very reminiscent of the Apollo command module) with astronauts inside. Orion docked to the space station, and some astronauts will go into the waiting lander. Finally, astronauts will descend to the surface of the moon. Having completed the sortie, they will return to the orbital station, where the team will transfer to the Orion to go home.

They represent the lunar space station as a set of modules, including residential, air lock, power module and propulsion system. NASA calls it the “Gateway”.

Its origins originated earlier than NASA’s current plan to return to the Moon, the agency recently renamed the entire program, giving it the name " Artemis ", and the proposed station shrank and increased in response to changing budgets and policies. NASA claims that the “Gateway” will become a necessary part of space exploration by man. Others ponder whether it is needed at all.

The origins of the “Gateway” can be traced to the cancellation by President Barack Obama of NASA’s last plan to return people to the moon (the Constellation program). In a April 2010 speech announcing new directions for NASA’s plans for manned space exploration, Obama called on the agency to develop vehicles for deep space exploration, starting with a flight to the asteroid closest to Earth in 2025. However, NASA quickly decided that such the target will be too ambitious, and will require a multi-month manned flight. Therefore, the agency proposed an alternative: instead of sending astronauts to the asteroid, it will drag the asteroid to the astronauts.

This idea gave rise to the asteroid redirection mission (ARM) , which was announced in 2013. It was assumed that the robotic spacecraft would capture a small asteroid not far from Earth - with a diameter of not more than 10 m - and gradually move it into a high stable orbit around the moon under the name of the distant retrograde orbit , where astronauts will be able to visit it as part of short missions. However, doubts about the usefulness and feasibility of ARM buried the program when it was offered at a budget allocation hearing in the US Congress.

In 2017, under the direction of the Donald Trump administration, NASA again made a U-turn. The Agency has long believed that the space program will benefit by occupying the space between the Earth and the Moon to test the technology of future missions to Mars and beyond. The next proposal made in March 2017 was the concept of Deep Space Gateway: a set of modules in the far retrograde orbit of the Moon. By the end of the 2020s, astronauts on this “Gateway” will be able to start assembling a separate space transport vehicle, Deep Space Transport, for long-term missions to Mars.

But this plan also failed, after Trump made NASA's new priority send astronauts to the lunar surface and create a permanent presence in space.

The most ambitious version of the “Gateway” was to become international, and the space agencies of Canada, Europe, Japan and Russia were to supply various modules. In such a scheme, a capsule with the Orion team (1) would deliver astronauts to the Gateway in preparation for missions on the lunar surface. At the “Gateway”, the gateway component (2), habitable modules (3, 4), space for scientific experiments and storage (5, 6, 7), a robotic arm (8) and a propulsion system (9) were planned. However, NASA is now designing a “minimal” “Gateway”, consisting of only a small inhabited module and propulsion system, to return to the surface of the moon earlier.

“This time, we will not just set the flag there and leave footprints,” Trump said in December 2017. He signed the space policy directive focusing the US space program on space exploration with the help of people, and first of all, the return of American astronauts to the moon. He said that the "long-term exploration and use" of the moon was a step towards even more ambitious projects. "We will lay the foundation for the proposed mission to Mars, and perhaps someday to the more distant worlds."

The directive instructed NASA to bring people back to the surface of the moon using commercial and international partnerships, but left the agency with the task of coming up with the best way to do this. NASA decided to change the concept of the gateway, formally renamed it the Orbital Platform – Gateway, and presented it as the scene from which the lunar missions will be sent. It was suggested that the “Gateway” be assembled in another orbit, strongly elliptical and passing over the poles of the Moon - an “almost straight halo orbit ”. Spaceships from the Earth will be able to reach it with minimal fuel consumption, so it will be there relatively cheap and easy to deliver supplies. In this configuration, according to NASA plans, astronauts will be able to return to the surface of the moon by 2028.

NASA is also working to attract international partners, with many of whom it has already worked on the International Space Station. By the beginning of 2019, the Gateway project had grown to the largest size than ever. The proposed configuration included a module with power and a propulsion system, which was supposed to use solar energy to power the “Gateway” and its movement in the space between the Earth and the Moon, two inhabited modules, a recycling module, a multifunction module and a robotic arm. In February 2019, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that the country was ready to spend 2 billion Canadian dollars on this project. In the conceptual drawings, the other modules optimistically carried the logos of the European Space Agency, Japan Space Research Agency and Roscosmos.

“This is the inspirational Gateway project,” said NASA administrator Jim Brydenstein in a mid-March speech. He discussed the NASA proposal for the fiscal year 2020, which included an amount of $ 821 million for the development of the Gateway. He added that he talked with the leaders of other space agencies, and "they joyfully embraced the idea of ​​a joint project to travel to the moon."

But after two weeks, the inspirational idea changed again. In a speech at the National Space Council meeting on March 26, Vice President Mike Pence ordered NASA to expedite plans to return to the moon. “As directed by the US president, the policy of this administration and our country is the return of American astronauts to the moon in the next five years,” Pence announced in a speech. This ambitious goal - the landing in 2024 - came as a surprise to the whole world.

And she made NASA scratch her head in search of a means to achieve this goal. In an April speech at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Brydenstein said that NASA will correct its plans to adapt them to the study of the moon, and will focus only on the basic elements needed to return people to its surface in the next five years. “The first phase is speed. We need to step to the surface of the moon as quickly as possible, ”he said. “We will get rid of everything that will distract us from this goal.” And, apparently, most of the Gateway project will distract the agency. Brydenstein suggested that the only parts of the “Gateway” necessary for landing are a propulsion system and a habitable module, to which the Orion ship and landing modules can dock.

NASA's international partners were also shocked. The space agencies that began planning the construction of the Gateway components suddenly became unclear when their contribution might be needed and whether it would be needed at all. Bridenstein acknowledged this uncertainty in an April speech. “Our international partners are concerned about this, and they expressed their concern to me at this conference,” he said. However, he said that these partners will still be able to play a role in NASA’s second phase of moon exploration plans after the lunar landing in 2024. And then, he said, NASA’s priority would be to support the long-term presence of people in the space between the Earth and the Moon, including and the construction of the “Gateway” in a form similar to what was previously discussed.

In the weeks that followed, NASA increasingly talked about building a "minimum" Gateway to support the 2024 moon landing. In May, NASA announced a request for an additional advance of $ 1.6 billion in 2020, necessary to achieve this goal. The extra money should mainly help commercial companies develop lighter vehicles faster, accelerate the lagging development of the SLS rocket and the Orion ship, since both of these projects are already years behind schedule and have exceeded their budgets by billions of dollars. Also in this proposal, it is recommended to cut funding for the “Gateway” by $ 321 million.

This revised budget “changes the attitude towards the Gateway a bit,” said NASA Assistant Administrator for Human Research and Operations, William Gershtenmeyer during a hasty organized press conference. "The Gateway has evolved toward larger capabilities that exceed the minimum required for landing. Current plans are redirecting the design of the Gateway back to the most essential components for landing." In late May, Brydenstein announced that NASA had chosen Maxar Technologies to build the Power Module and Gateway propulsion system.

From left to right:
- low lunar orbit, 100 km, period 2 hours;
- distant retrograde orbit, 70,000 km, period of 2 weeks;
- almost rectilinear halo orbit, 2,000 - 75,000 km, period 1 week.

NASA considered several options for orbits to prepare for the moon. Everyone has their own trade-offs: access to higher orbits is cheaper from Earth, but low orbits give quick access to the surface of the moon.

Critics of the Gateway project say NASA should not roll back the scale to the space station, but should simply close the project. If you need to get to the surface of the moon, as he says, then go there directly, as the Apollo missions did half a century ago. Creating an outpost in lunar orbit adds cost, delay and complexity to an already difficult task.

Among these critics is NASA's former administrator, Michael Griffin. Last November, during a meeting with an advisory group from the National Space Council, he hit the space station with devastating criticism. “The architecture under discussion, according to which the“ Gateway ”must be done before setting foot on the moon, looks silly from the point of view of the space systems engineer,” he said. Instead, NASA should go directly to the surface of the moon, he claimed, and after that install something like a “Gateway” to support such missions, especially when astronauts can begin to extract resources such as ice water on polar caps. "The" gateway "will be useful only after they can produce rocket fuel on the moon and send it to a warehouse in lunar orbit, but not before."

Another active critic of the project is Robert Zubrin , founder and president of the Martian Society . He compares the “Gateway” to a toll post, claiming that he adds costs to all future missions to the Moon or Mars. He proposed an alternative plan called Moon Direct , which will use existing commercial transportation systems to gradually build the lunar base.

Keeping abreast of this criticism, NASA defends the “Gateway”. In May, the agency quietly circulated a draft proposal titled “ Why Do I Need a Gateway? ” Protecting the space station. “NASA’s position, based on technical and programmatic analysis, is that the“ Gateway ”allows you to quickly arrange the next Americans to land on the moon,” it says. Among the listed reasons for this, it is stated that the Orion’s main engine is too weak to put the spacecraft into a low orbit around the Moon, so something like a “Gateway” needs to be organized in a high orbit.

“In general, the short-term and long-term advantages of the Gateway architecture easily outweigh the risks of a collision with noticeable delays in project implementation and inefficient moments that will inevitably occur due to such a late change in architecture,” the report concludes. Changes such as the need to increase the power of the Orion propulsion system so that it can reach the low lunar orbit can add billions to the $ 30 billion that have already been spent today on the implementation of the SLS and Orion programs, and at the same time not help to achieve the goal by 2024.

The need to rely on SLS and Orion worries some lunar enthusiasts, since both technologies are still in development mode, and both projects have already faced significant cost overruns and delays. Last October, the NASA auditor issued a derogatory report on the SLS program, which by that time was already three years behind schedule and exceeded the budget by several billion dollars. And while NASA and its allies say that there is no other way to the moon.

“The components we have today cannot make a moon landing without a“ Gateway, ”said Mike Fuller, who is responsible for NASA’s business development program at Northrop Grumman . He believes that the limited capabilities of the Orion engine are actually an advantage. Apollo missions sent control modules into orbit 100 km from the moon, but he says that "it was unprofitable to sink so low into the moon’s gravitational well." If Orion enters a higher orbit, it will be easier for him to return back to Earth, since this will require less traction.

Can NASA completely abandon the Gateway and this architecture? Critics say technical alternatives are emerging in the commercial space sector. They mean Blue Origin , a space company founded by billionaire Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon, not far from Seattle. Blue Origin is building both the New Glenn reusable heavy rocket and the Blue Moon lunar landing module. Another participant in the competition is SpaceX company Ilona Maska, of Hawthorne, California, also working on a reusable rocket. Its upper stage will be the Starship spaceship, which, according to the company, will be able to land directly on the moon and carry heavy loads. “This vehicle on the Moon can, in fact, serve as the core of a rather serious lunar outpost, which will grow over time,” said Paul Wooster, principal engineer for Mars from SpaceX.

However, all these wonderful spaceships from these companies are still in the development process, and it may take years before they are ready to land on the moon. Moreover, any attempts to cancel the SLS or Orion programs are likely to meet stubborn resistance in Congress, especially from influential members of those states in which work is underway on them. And, therefore, it is not surprising that NASA, with a vengeance, set about its “Gateway” plan. In May, discussing NASA's updated budget, Brydenstein said the Gateway was a vital project to achieve the moon landing goal by 2024. “The importance of the Gateway project has not diminished over time,” he said. “We cannot exaggerate its importance.”

If NASA, given the deflated budgets and political realities, continues to stubbornly go towards the “Gateway”, we will witness the triumphant return of NASA astronauts to the moon by 2024. NASA and previously won despite all the hardships and challenges. However, it is possible that the plan will not survive Congressional debate over budgets, or that the 2020 elections will lead to the emergence of another administration that will again change the course of the moon's exploration. And in this case, the motivated billionaires from SpaceX and Blue Origin may not wait for NASA, and corporate logos will be visible on the next tracks that leave the moon shoes in regolith .


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