When NASA got its marching orders last week to return astronauts to the Moon in 2024, many predicted that it would spell the end of the near-lunar Gateway project, a plan years in the making to build a cis-lunar spacecraft—in partnership with the U.S. space agency and four other international partners.
But William H. Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations at NASA, told Seniorhelpline that the controversial Gateway project could actually be beneficial for facilitating the early return of astronauts to the surface of the moon.
“The Gateway (station) was designed to be adaptable for different roles and we believe its architecture and capabilities can support the new timeline,” Gerstenmaier said.
From Deep Space to Lunar Space
The small, periodically visited outpost near the moon was originally conceived to test technologies needed for a trip to Mars or asteroids. But NASA's partners, mainly Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada, would only play along if it served as way station to the moon as well.
Rebranded simply "Gateway," the agency also began drafting a partially reusable lunar lander that could be parked at the outpost between sorties to the lunar surface. Other companies, like Lockheed Martin, have designed reusable lunar spacecraft designed to dock with the Gateway.
But on March 26, during the , Vice President Mike Pence gave NASA a very tight deadline to land on the Moon in just five years.
While a chorus of critics say the mission is a political stunt before the elections, some commentators speculated that if NASA tried to meet the newly imposed deadline, it would be an all-hands-on-deck affair that would require dropping all non-essential items, like the Gateway, and focusing on other objectives like the long-delayed SLS Moon rocket and the Orion crew vehicle. For example, NASA hasn’t even funded, designed, or tested a lunar lander yet.
But this new ambitious objective could actually be a blessing in disguise for NASA's Gateway project.
Putting Fresh Boots on the Moon
One specialist, who wished to remain anonymous, involved in the Gateway project told Seniorhelpline that in its current configuration, NASA’s Orion spacecraft does not have enough propellant to actually come close enough to the moon to dispatch a compact lunar lander to the surface.
Compared to the Orion spacecraft’s predecessor, the Apollo, even an untrained eye can spot that Orion’s propellant-carrying trunk is smaller than the service module on the Apollo spacecraft, which carried the world’s first astronauts to the moon. That’s because the Orion was designed to maneuver much farther away from the moon, where its gravitational pull is weaker and requires less propellant to counteract.
Unless NASA redesigns the Orion (which would take years), any lunar expedition would have to depart from a much higher orbit around the moon.
But the total gravitational pull to overcome in any lunar expedition still remains the same as in the Apollo era, so the Orion’s lacking propulsion capacity would have to be compensated for during other legs of the journey. Shifting all the missing extra propellant to the lunar lander is not a good idea either, so a special space tug would be needed to ferry the lander from the Orion’s high orbit to as close to the lunar surface as possible.
Not Dead Yet
Despite all these changes, it would still be convenient to assemble the components of the lunar expedition at a hub in the orbit around the moon, like NASA’s Gateway. The egg-shaped orbit selected for the Gateway is also better than Apollo’s low lunar orbit for communications, power supply, and thermal control. And as a bonus, this safer, energy-friendly distance still provides access to practically all regions on the moon, including polar areas.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine stressed that latter advantage of the Gateway during another debate during the Space Council meeting last week over the usefulness of the outpost: “What the gateway does, it allows us to get to more parts of the moon than ever before,” Bridenstine said.
The two initial pieces of the Gateway, currently scheduled for launch in 2022 and 2023, could provide electricity to the lunar expeditionary spacecraft and room and board to the astronauts on their lunar journey, providing a little bit more comfort compared to their heroic Apollo predecessors.
According to NASA sources, the revised flight manifest, which takes into the account the latest directive to land astronauts on the moon in 2024, will be ready as early as the middle of April.
So far, it looks like the much-criticized Gateway station might get the last laugh in its lunar orbit, awaiting the first expedition to the moon in the 21st century.