Top NASA officials and their partners in the International Space Station program gathered in Tokyo this past Friday and Monday, Seniorhelpline has learned, for behind-closed-doors talks on the next big step in human spaceflight: the lunar orbiting station. Officially known as the Deep Space Gateway, or DSG, the modular outpost will occupy an egg-shaped orbit around the moon in the 2020s, when it replaces the ISS and becomes the main destination for astronauts and cosmonauts.
Although all partners generally agree on the idea of the DSG, the exact design and use of the future outpost is still up for debate. NASA hoped to use the outpost as a springboard for missions to Mars, while others are pushing for the exploration of the lunar surface. These diverse goals will be hard to reconcile in one space station because of technical and financial differences and limitations.
This series of technical discussions in Tokyo concluded earlier today with the meeting of the Multilateral Coordination Board (MCB). This group is comprised of top space officials in the ISS program from nations including the U.S., Europe, Canada, and Japan. They will try to hammer out drafts of a joint decision for the heads of their agencies to view.
Russia will play an important role in the final design and purpose of the station, even though the Roscosmos State Corporation, Russia’s space agency, was late embracing the project. It’s now scrambling to figure out its political position and its level of technical contribution for the DSG.
On the eve of international talks in Tokyo, the head of Roscosmos, Igor Komarov, held a meeting with human spaceflight experts to finalize Russia's position. Representatives from RKK Energia, the nation’s prime contractor for human missions, gave Komarov a draft of a possible lunar exploration strategy to be shared with international partners.
RKK Energia recommended contributing the multi-purpose module, which would serve as a lab, an airlock for space walks, and a docking port for at least three transport ships on the Deep Space Gateway. This proposal is an expansion of Russia’s original participation, since the lab was not part of the original module concept.
RKK Energia thinks this module will cost upwards of 40 billion rubles, or about $706 million. That price assumes that the multipurpose module will be launched on NASA’s giant SLS rocket, piggybacking with the Orion crew vehicle. But as a precaution, Russian engineers are trying to keep the module slim so it can be ferried to the station by a pair of smaller Russian rockets if needed.
During the second phase of this proposed Russian lunar exploration plan, RKK Energia will launch its own crew vehicle into an orbit around the moon as early as 2026. That craft is currently in development and would use a pair of yet-to-be-developed rockets for the task.
Within the same timeframe, Roscosmos also hopes to develop a lunar lander in cooperation with its international partners. The four-legged vehicle would likely be parked at the DSG. After first conducting a fully automated test flight to the moon, the entire ship or its upper section with the crew cabin could be reused again for landing humans on the lunar surface. It would be the first time a human stepped on the moon since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972.
But before that can happen, political leaders must agree on the strategy and who’s going pay for it. So far, the participating partners haven’t agreed whether the Deep Space Gateway will be a U.S.-led program with foreign contributions or a truly multinational effort like the ISS. But according to industry sources speaking with Seniorhelpline, Russia and other partners will likely insist on equal partnership in designing and managing the future station.
But multinational space agencies working on the same station can come with some complications of its own. It’s been a long-standing wish of space-faring countries to develop hardware and systems that are fully compatible with one another. After all, navigating through space is hard enough—incompatible hardware and software shouldn’t make it even harder. But the development of common standards turns out to be technically and financially difficult.
For example, NASA wants the entire cis-lunar station powered with 120 volts of electricity, but that would mean that Roscosmos would have to rebuild a great deal of its equipment from scratch. Russia’s space agency also uses a different fluid in its cooling systems, so they’d likely have to buy an entirely new set of pumps to cool their modules. The situation is further complicated by the fact that some of the systems and approaches, which had been painstakingly developed and tested on the International Space Station, would have to be changed to satisfy harsher conditions of the near-lunar orbit.
In Tokyo the Russian delegation, led by legendary cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, supposedly insisted on “common interfaces” rather than “common standards,” which means that all pieces of the station will fit together perfectly, but the individual components might still use their own unique systems preferred by their manufacturers.
Overall, members of the MCB have work cut out for them, but the hard decisions they make could determine the direction of human space flight for several decades to come.
Anatoly Zak is the publisher of and the author of