NASA’s human spaceflight plans come into focus with announcement of Deep Space Gateway
With NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) well into development, the agency has finally laid out plans for the early missions of its super-heavy-lift rocket. After an initial shakedown flight for Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) – which may carry crew – the SLS will deliver components of what has been designated a “Deep Space Gateway” to lunar vicinity.
Big journey, now with details
For several years, NASA has been promoting their Journey to Mars and the role the SLS would play in missions to the Red Planet. While cislunar activities were mentioned as part of “proving ground” objectives, the agency was often light on details of what, exactly, that meant.
However, in a talk with the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) Human Exploration and Operations Committee at the agency’s headquarters, Bill Gerstenmaier – NASA’s chief of human spaceflight – presented some of the first concrete details of what will constitute activities in the proving ground.
After the first fully integrated launch of the SLS in its Block 1 configuration for EM-1, tentatively scheduled for the late 2018–2019 timeframe, the mammoth rocket will evolve to its Block 1B design for the launch of the Europa Clipper robotic spacecraft, and the subsequent EM-2 through EM-8 missions.
Capable of lofting 105 metric tons to low-Earth orbit (LEO), the Block 1B model gives SLS the capability to deliver co-manifested payloads (CMP) in the 10 metric ton range to lunar vicinity when carrying crew, or more than 41 metric tons when in the cargo-carrying configuration.
This extra capacity will be used to ferry components of the Deep Space Gateway to lunar vicinity, with the first delivery – a 40-kilowatt solar electric propulsion module – slated to launch on EM-2 in 2023. Following that, a cadence of one to two SLS launches per year will deliver habitation and support modules to the Gateway as the facility evolves into an outpost capable of supporting Mars-bound missions.
Who will build the lunar outpost?
One of the companies, Bigelow Aerospace, currently has a test module attached to the International Space Station (ISS). Their 16-cubic-meter Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) was launched to the ISS aboard the SpaceX CRS-8 mission on April 8, 2016, and subsequently attached to the orbiting outpost eight days later. Though not nominally inhabited, astronauts have occasionally entered BEAM to recover test data to send back to Bigelow.
Bigelow expects to field their XBASE (Expandable Bigelow Advanced Station Enhancement) module for the NextSTEP initiative. The 330-cubic-meter habitat is based on the company’s B-330 spacecraft, though modified to attach to the ISS as a “visiting vehicle” for on-orbit testing.
NASA also selected industry blue chips Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Sierra Nevada, and Orbital ATK, along with relative newcomer NanoRacks, for the second Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP-2) program.
It’s not yet clear which, if any, of the companies involved in the NextSTEP-2 program will be part of the Deep Space Gateway roadmap, though one may be safe in assuming it will be at least one of the six companies mentioned above.
Red Planet or Bust
Ultimately, the goal of the Gateway is to enable human exploration of Mars. Long the focus of science fiction writers and space explorers alike, the Red Planet presents a compelling location to cement as humanity’s second home in the cosmos, but getting there represents one of the greatest technical challenges ever undertaken.
To ensure that the hardware and infrastructure are ready for a journey to the fourth planet in the Solar System, NASA plans to extensively test the systems that will enable a crewed mission to Mars.
“In 2029 we’re ready to go do a verification flight, where we essentially have the crew stay in the vicinity of the Moon to simulate roughly one year of activity on the way to Mars,” Gerstenmaier was quoted as saying, in a piece by Eric Berger for Ars Technica.
Should everything go as planned, humans may embark on a flight to Mars sometime in the mid-2030s. This mission, perhaps lasting as long as three years, could make use of a gravity assist at Venus on the way to the Martian system. However, if the mission might last three times as long, why test the transportation system for only a year?
“That verifies that the vehicle you will take to Mars has operated for one year, and it’s ready to go do its three-year requirement,” concluded Gerstenmaier.
No bucks, no Buck Rogers
Though the agency has presented a logical roadmap for human exploration, it cannot be achieved without the support of the United States government, along with commercial and international partners.
“I envision different partners, both international and commercial, contributing to the gateway and using it in a variety of ways with a system that can move to different orbits to enable a variety of missions,” stated Gerstenmaier, in a release issued by the agency.
Indeed, non-SLS-based support appears to be integral to the design of the Deep Space Gateway architecture, with commercial launches tapped to augment the SLS as early as EM-3 in 2024.
However, all of this planning is for naught if there’s no money to support it. Though the agency has been largely spared from deep budgetary cuts, NASA will need greater support over the coming years to ensure the schedule can be met.
While President Trump has indicated a strong interest in seeing human spaceflight beyond low-Earth orbit before the conclusion of his first term, he has also made it clear he also wants to focus on infrastructure problems closer to home. Without adequate funding, NASA’s Journey to Mars may be nothing more than an aspirational goal.
Despite the potential budgetary issues, though, the agency has finally made public a compelling and achievable plan to realize one of humankind’s greatest undertakings: a mission to Mars.
Animation of a launch of NASA’s SLS rocket. Video credit: NASA / Marshall Space Flight Center
Curt Godwin has been a fan of space exploration for as long as he can remember, keeping his eyes to the skies from an early age. Initially majoring in Nuclear Engineering, Curt later decided that computers would be a more interesting - and safer - career field. He's worked in education technology for more than 20 years, and has been published in industry and peer journals, and is a respected authority on wireless network engineering. Throughout this period of his life, he maintained his love for all things space and has written about his experiences at a variety of NASA events, both on his personal blog and as a freelance media representative.