NASA’s exploration goals come into focus with updated road map
Four months after President Trump directed NASA to return to the Moon, the agency has presented a road map to meet the goals outlined in Space Policy Directive-1. The updated plan shifts focus from the previous “Journey to Mars” campaign back to the Moon, and—eventually—to the Red Planet.
“The Moon will play an important role in expanding human presence deeper into the solar system,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator of the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA, in a release issued by the agency.
While the revamped plan may share the same destination as the Apollo program, NASA said it will approach the return in a more measured and sustainable manner. Unlike humanity’s first trip to the Moon, the journey back will incorporate both commercial and international partners.
To achieve this, NASA has outlined four strategic goals:
- Transition low-Earth orbit (LEO) human spaceflight activities to commercial operators.
- Expand long-duration spaceflight activities to include lunar orbit.
- Facilitate long-term robotic lunar exploration.
- Use human exploration of the Moon as groundwork for eventual human missions to Mars and beyond.
Low-Earth orbit goals
The objectives for low-Earth orbit include the ending of direct support for the International Space Station by 2025. To achieve this, NASA said it will work with its international and commercial partners to develop a plan to shift station operations from its current design to a non-NASA operating model.
To replace the decreased support from NASA, the agency proposes to open up station visits to more international astronauts and expend partnerships to new nations. Additionally, NASA seeks to expand commercial participation on the station through public-private partnerships designed to enable new space-based products and services.
The outpost, which saw its first component launched in November 1998, costs NASA approximately $3 billion per year to maintain. Though it’s unclear how that funding will be used after 2024, it would be logical to assume that money could be shifted to other programs in support of the lunar, and deep space, exploration programs.
The Moon and beyond
Though the agency’s sights have been shifted from Mars to the Moon, NASA’s super-heavy-lift rocket—the Space Launch System (SLS)—will still play a key role in the lunar exploration goals.
The first flight of the rocket, Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), will take place in 2020 and send an uncrewed Orion spacecraft to the Moon. Three years later, EM-2 will see SLS send astronauts around the Moon on the first crewed flight of the spacecraft.
The interregnum between the two early SLS flights will see the agency work with commercial partners to address other parts of the exploration road map, notably the construction of the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (LOP-G) and support of lunar robotic exploration.
NASA said it wants to have LOP-G’s power-propulsion element (PPE) delivered to lunar orbit by 2022 to serve as a nucleus to the lunar space station. Beyond serving as a core component to the nascent outpost, the PPE will host communications and high power solar electric propulsion technology.
Commercial lunar robotic exploration, meanwhile, is targeted for operations no later than 2020. NASA hopes the work will progress from small, uncrewed lunar landers, to more substantial versions with the capacity to support human surface operations.
Beyond those lunar-centric goals, the agency plans to maintain and grow U.S. leadership in Mars exploration, with the 2020 rover as its near-term flagship mission, culminating in the return of a surface sample from the Red Planet.
“Coupled with the capabilities enabled by the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, these missions will usher in a new era of exploration of the Moon and its resources, and provide a training ground for human missions to Mars,” Gerstenmaier said.
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.