With the Space Launch System (SLS)
Program on track for testing, America will soon send humans farther from Earth than anyone has ventured since the Apollo missions. First up? NASA will go forward to the Moon. Here, we’ll establish a permanent presence in the form of a new orbital platform designed for close—or cislunar—orbit of the Moon. Known as the Gateway
, this outpost will allow astronauts to study more of the Moon than ever before and perfect operations for missions deeper into our solar system.
As the center prepares to support this new mission, here are four things you need to know.
1. Piece by piece: Assembling the Gateway
Building on lessons learned while constructing the space station, plans for the Gateway follow a modular design.
The power and propulsion element (PPE) will be the first Gateway component to launch toward the Moon, arriving to cislunar orbit ahead of NASA’s 2023 timeline for crewed Orion missions by one year. This 2022 delivery of the PPE reflects an agile partnership and development strategy with U.S. industry, and will set the stage for a fast-paced assembly.
While much smaller than the football-field-sized laboratory currently in low-Earth orbit, NASA’s Gateway will also use solar arrays for sustainable power. With the exception of the PPE, which will launch aboard a commercial rocket, most modules will be delivered to lunar orbit aboard the SLS, co-manifested with Orion, leveraging Orion’s capability to deliver the Gateway modules for docking and assembly with the Gateway.
The Gateway will feature a pallet system derived from lessons learned from the familiar rack system aboard the space station for investigations, storage of lunar samples, testing and utilization activities. Science laboratories, habitation modules, airlocks for spacewalks and deploying external payloads, as well as a robotic arm for vehicle capture and payload installation, are also highlighted in the first design. Further in the future, the ability for multiple vehicles to dock simultaneously to the Gateway may enable travel beyond our Moon, acting as an off-Earth hub for deep space missions. Unique to this lunar outpost also is the potential to support sample-return vehicles from the Moon or other bodies in the solar system.
2. Studying the Moon
The Gateway will be humanity’s first quasi-permanent platform for exploration around the Moon and beyond. Its mission? “Advance[ing] our operational and technical knowledge of working from space,” said Joe Caram, acting Gateway Systems Engineering and Integration (SE&I) lead for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.
This hub for science and technology development will draw on lessons from Earth’s own microgravity laboratory
, but will be more focused on revealing sections of the Moon that have not been investigated by astronauts or robots, including the far side of the Moon and the lunar poles. Observation and data collection will occur throughout the Gateway’s lifespan.
“This is a sustainable opportunity,” said Debra Ludban, acting SE&I deputy. “It will be there all the time and operate even when it is uncrewed. It will enable cislunar development. Surface systems are also under development that the Gateway will enable via communication relay support.”
Caram added, “We will also be able to advance technologies through this Gateway for going even deeper in space. We’re flying with solar electric propulsion for the first time on a crewed system with the Gateway,
and with that we’ll develop knowledge needed for the expansion into the solar system, including Mars.”
3. Uniting to take the world with us
NASA will lead architecture, development and integration, and operations for the Gateway, but construction and utilization will be an international effort. International, commercial and academic partners will also advance our work in cislunar orbit.
“We’re working with commercial providers for what they would envision Gateway to be and also with our international partners for the Gateway’s construction,” Caram said.
“In addition to our current partners, we’re talking about future international partners participating,” Ludban said. “So many countries are interested in learning more about space, and so we hope to open many opportunities for science and technology development.”
Even as the United States continues to expand and assert preeminence in space, the scientific advancements and knowledge gained from missions to the Moon will benefit humanity. Like the International Space Station before it, the Gateway will unite partners and nations in peaceful access to space.
4. What Johnson will contribute
Johnson will lead astronaut training for Gateway and lunar missions, and is managing analysis for the six full-sized deep space habitat ground prototypes that U.S industry partners are developing to be tested at Johnson, Marshall and Kennedy next year . The center is also home to NASA’s Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Division
, which oversees all sample materials from the Apollo missions and acts as steward of the world’s largest collection of astromaterials. Experts from this group will assist in defining science objectives for Gateway missions and eventually care for the new specimens acquired as part of NASA’s overall cislunar plans. In addition, the center’s extensive program-management expertise means that Johnson is integrating plans across the agency and working with station’s international partners to move the Gateway forward.
Our heavy involvement with Orion’s development, space station management, SE&I, flight operations and payloads also makes us a key player for the agency as it looks ahead.
For Johnson, the Gateway adds to a larger exploration architecture linking Earth and the Moon, providing a new opportunity to live out our vision to dare
The Gateway will function as a specialized outpost focused on expanding humanity’s reach into the solar system and study of the Moon’s natural resources. Image Credit: NASA
NASA Johnson Space Center
Johnson Space Center’s role in human space exploration, station operations, the Orion Program and astromaterials research makes it a natural home base for planning Gateway missions. Image Credit: NASA/Robert Markowitz