NASA is no stranger to see people bash its plans for human spaceflight. The latest target: the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, a new space station to succeed the ISS. The Trump administration has said this new station could be in place as early as 2024, and is expected to ask industry for power and propulsion ideas soon.
NASA says the gateway will enable exploration of the solar system, but critics call it a colossal waste of money and effort. But what if there were a way to salvage the idea—and it involved forgetting about the astronauts?
The Lunar Gateway Explained
Understanding the Lunar Gateway begins with its orbit. The station would cruise close to the moon, then whip into space before looping back. This six-day journey repeats on a strict schedule so that visitors could plan a rendezvous and ride the station to the moon.
This orbit also keeps the gateway within Earth's line of sight. This way, the station can act as a communication relay between mission control and the lunar surface. Using lasers to transmit large amounts of information, the station could help establish commercial and scientific missions to the moon's surface.
“The Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway will drive our activity with commercial and international partners and help us explore the Moon and its resources,” says NASA official William Gerstenmaier. “We will ultimately translate that experience toward human missions to Mars.”
The space station would be smaller than ISS, and house 4 crewmembers for one to three month missions. The astronauts would ride NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, but the universal airlock would work with commercial and international spacecraft. This flexibility fits the Gateway’s position as an enabler of other missions, no matter who is running them.
This is where NASA’s fixation on having onboard astronauts begins. In NASA's idyllic view, the gateway is a place where its people learn valuable lessons about living off-world. Here, the agency could perfect life support systems and conduct exploration missions that would give NASA the confidence to put space boots on Mars. It would also be a service station for any other missions—NASA's or otherwise—on the lunar surface. NASA sees this as the big benefit of the Lunar Gateway.
Save the Gateway, Drop the People
The best arguments against the gateway, however, are those that question the necessity of a crew. That's because there’s a better place for people to explore the moon: the lunar surface.
The biggest reason is safety. Being in space means being exposed to radiation, so stations need additional shielding to protect inhabitants. The lunar soil (regolith) can be packed to make ideal protection for a moon base, and existing volcanic tunnels called rilles are ideal for occupation.
Virtually every human activity proposed for the gateway can be covered from the lunar surface. The experiments with human space habitation are better off conducted safely in low earth orbit—not the moon's.
Here's a thought: Transform the Lunar Gateway into a simpler and cheaper communication relay with an unending supply of power. Drop the 125 square meters of pressurized space in the gateway, and keep people safe in volcanic tunnels on the moon. The gateway could still dock with spacecraft to top off their batteries or deliver samples from the lunar surface that can be ferried closer to Earth, and the best part is more modules can be added as other missions come online.
For example, future modules could include an automated fuel processor, making the gateway a depot for spacecraft on long duration missions. Emergency supplies could also be propositioned at the station. A lander could wait for the need for a new rover battery, an emergency shelter for stranded astronauts or anything else that can be 3D printed at the 's automated station.
Congress can get behind the idea, since any gateway plan makes a strong case in support of NASA's new heavy rocket. The SLS's Block2 configuration only carries cargo and can lift more than 99,000 lbs to deep space. Building and supplying the gateway would give SLS purpose and preserve terrestrial manufacturing and spaceport jobs. NASA would also gain more experience in operating the SLS, making it far more likely to successfully deliver a manned Orion capsule to the surface of Mars in the not-too-distant future.
Boon or Boondoggle?
The biggest issue with a manned gateway is that the mission lacks a "concrete human spaceflight goals," former ISS Commander Terry Virts recently . "Instead, there is simply a fuzzy promise of having an ‘ecosystem’ of capability in orbit around the Moon that will eventually enable humans to go to Mars,” he said.
It’s a fair point, in many ways, and a safe statement. NASA’s human spaceflight has been adrift since the Space Shuttle retired. Various presidents have chased destinations—Bush had the moon, Obama wanted to visit an asteroid—but their plans died as expensive boondoggles. The SLS—NASA's much-delayed, big-budget, heavy-lifter that critics deride as a "rocket to nowhere"—appears to be the same example of hardware without a destination.
Does the Lunar Gateway fit that model? To its credit, NASA has tried to veer away from the problems that doomed earlier spaceflight efforts when administrations and priorities changed. For example, the agency is using what's called a Broad Agency Announcement to solicit for space station ideas. This means the space industry bidders are free to develop their own designs and processes (in other words, this is not a hardware purchase where NASA decides the engineering). This may spur up ideas that commercial entities will use to make their own bases. Offloading the big plans to private space is risky but is also the natural extension of what we're seeing with companies like Blue Origin, Bigelow, and SpaceX.
While NASA continues watching China and private companies like Blue Origin plan lunar landings, there comes a time when a smart settler should start selling picks instead of searching for gold. For NASA, it may not be a bad idea to set up a sophisticated cislunar satellite that is open for business—no matter what future is coming.