NASA officials have released a new and improved plan for how the federal space agency will get astronauts to deep space and Mars by the 2030s.
The strategy, unveiled last week by NASA's associate administrator Bill Gerstenmaier, brings a few important changes from the previous three-phase plan.
Deep Space Getaway
Firstly, the agency is preparing to build a Deep Space Gateway or DSG — essentially a small space station orbiting the Moon, which is to be assembled with the help of the SLS, in three separate flights of the gigantic rocket.
According to a NASA news release, the DSG will be operated by a crew of four and will equipped with a habitation module, an airlock for spacewalks, and a propulsion module to allow maintenance services on the space station.
The DSG is intended to function as spaceport or launching pad for lunar landing missions, in an effort to extend space operations farther from Earth than before.
"Building the deep space gateway will allow engineers to develop new skills and test new technologies that have evolved since the assembly of the International Space Station," state NASA officials.
Between missions, the Orion is set to dock on the space station, which can support the four-member crew for up to 42 days, according to the release. The designs Gerstenmaier unveiled to the NASA Advisory Council are expected to be completed by 2025.
Deep Space Transport
Secondly, the agency announced its ambitious aspiration to build a deep space transport (DST) spacecraft — a reusable transport ship, which is to be resupplied and refurbished at the lunar space station, and will ultimately carry astronauts to Mars and back.
Designed to support a crew of four for about 1,000 days at a time and weighing about 41 metric tons, the deep space transporter will be launched into space aboard the SLS in 2027.
For this purpose, the SLS is essential, as this is the only rocket powerful enough to transport the enormous vehicle into orbit. After its one-mission trip into the lunar orbit, the DST is expected to make three journeys to the Red Planet and back to Earth.
What the agency is planning to achieve is the validation that "long-duration, distant human missions can be safely conducted with independence from Earth."
"Through the efforts to build this deep space infrastructure, this phase will enable explorers to identify and pioneer innovative solutions to technical and human challenges discovered or engineered in deep space," shows the NASA news release.
Overcoming The Radiation Problem
One of the hurdles of space travel is protecting the astronauts from ultraviolet radiation, including the cosmic and gamma rays from the sun and outer space, which puts them at risk for cancer and death.
To counteract the potentially lethal effects of space radiation, Israeli company StemRad has developed a radiation vest, customized for each astronaut and designed to shield vital human tissue, such as reproductive organs, lungs, and stem cells, from radiation exposure.
The lightweight vest is called the AstroRad Radiation Shield and, according to some sources, could be tested as early as next year, when the Orion will be making its first trip around the moon.
This safety measure will reportedly offer the same amount of protection as the other radiation-proof idea NASA is planning to use: a shielded "safe room" installed aboard the Orion. Essentially a storm shelter, this cabin will safely house the astronauts in the event of a solar flare storm.
Other options include anti-radiation drugs which could be administered to reverse some of the effects of severe radiation exposure.