NASA is thinking big on the Mars and other deep space missions with higher prominence to lunar operations. Under a new program called Deep Space Gateway, NASA, according to officials, will set up new infrastructure and systems in the lunar orbit as a mini space station to function as the platform for sending astronauts to Mars and other solar system destinations.
The orbiting spaceport would have multiple goals. Primarily, it will serve as a mini space station for missions into deep space as well as moon's surface.
Unlike the ISS, there will be no permanent crew camping there. The spaceport will serve as a small habitat for astronauts backed by docking capability, airlock, and logistics that will support research, according to NASA.
Lunar Spaceport To Involve International Partners
No cost estimate has been announced for the spaceport but NASA says international partners and private sector would be involved in its construction.
"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," said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA's Human Exploration.
He said the gateway will support both robotic and partner missions to the moon and other higher lunar orbits. The gateway can be used as a point of departure for missions to all destinations in the solar system.
Gateway To Get Impetus After EM-1 Flight
The focus on deep space gateway will intensify after the Exploration Mission 1 of NASA in 2018.
In EM-1, NASA will be exploring deep space. If it is opting for a crewed mission, astronauts will fly a trajectory around the moon to become the first humans to be in deep space after the Apollo program.
The strategic importance of the new gateway was commented by an expert.
Bill Pratt, working on the deep space habitat prototype of Lockheed Martin, noted the need for an autonomous space station. He said the International Space Station takes an average 1,000 commands from the ground on a day to run the facility. He said a change is inevitable to that situation while thinking of deep space missions.
"We really have to have a vehicle that has the ability to keep itself running," he added.
NASA is pursuing a multi-phase approach for humans orbiting Mars in 2033 with landings later.
Currently, it is working toward phase 1 of the program with Space Launch System rocket (SLS) and Orion spacecraft getting ready for launching a four-person crew to deep space.
Both SLS rocket and Orion are under development at the Marshall Space Flight Center and Johnson Space Center in Houston respectively.
Mars Asteroid Program Called Off
Meanwhile, NASA's announcement about Deep Space Gateway is silent on the asteroid mission to Mars. The Obama administration had pushed for an inexpensive way of testing the SLS and Orion. The mission was to fly the spacecraft to an asteroid and break a piece of it and bring it to lunar orbit.
However, the asteroid trip is abhorred by Republicans in Congress who wanted a better focus on the moon. In the 2018 budget plan outlined by the White House, the Asteroid Redirect Mission has been scrapped.