This decade is a time of transition for the U.S. space program. NASA is fostering development of commercial services for orbital spaceflight to launch both the agency’s resupply and (soon) crewed missions to the International Space Station (ISS), while the agency itself focuses on deep space crew exploration with their Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft starting in the early 2020s.
NASA does not want to focus on orbiting the earth anymore with crews, and for most of this current decade, has consistently focused on a path to Mars as their next big goal for human spaceflight.
Whatever the politics, which can derail space programs dependent on decades of support like the SLS / Orion missions will need, one thing is for sure. NASA wants a base orbiting the moon to serve as a means to access the lunar surface and deeper exploration, such as to asteroids and eventually, Mars in the 2030s.
It’s called the Deep Space Gateway, and six companies are already working on full-scale prototypes and concepts for deep space habitats for consideration on the gateway.
Lockheed Martin was one of them, and last week the company released some details for their full-scale prototype, which they hope to complete over the next 18 months.
All six companies are developing their prototypes under a Phase II contract with NASA’s Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) program, as part of the agency’s plans to construct a crew tended spaceport in lunar orbit within the first few SLS / Orion missions.
“The deep space gateway would have a power bus, a small habitat to extend crew time, docking capability, an airlock, and serviced by logistics modules to enable research,” says NASA. “The propulsion system on the gateway mainly uses high power electric propulsion for station keeping and the ability to transfer among a family of orbits in the lunar vicinity. The three primary elements of the gateway, the power and propulsion bus and habitat module, and a small logistics module(s), would take advantage of the cargo capacity of SLS and crewed deep space capability of Orion. An airlock can further augment the capabilities of the gateway and can fly on a subsequent exploration mission. Building the deep space gateway will allow engineers to develop new skills and test new technologies that have evolved since the assembly of the ISS.”
Such an outpost will give astronauts opportunity to build and begin testing the systems needed for the very challenging missions to Mars that NASA has its eyes set on in the coming decades, offering an environment to gain experience and land on the moon’s surface for robotic missions, while also keeping the ability to return to Earth in a short period of time, rather than weeks or months on missions further into space.
Lockheed’s vision takes the old Donatello Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM), once used in the payload bay of the space shuttles to transfer cargo to the ISS, and refurbishes it to prototype their deep space habitat in the Space Station Processing Facility at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
“We are excited to work with NASA to repurpose a historic piece of flight hardware, originally designed for low Earth orbit exploration, to play a role in humanity’s push into deep space,” said Pratt. “Making use of existing capabilities will be a guiding philosophy for Lockheed Martin to minimize development time and meet NASA’s affordability goals.”
Lockheed says they will rely heavily on mixed reality prototyping using virtual and augmented reality, to reduce cost and schedule, and identify and solve problems early in the design phase.
The company will build a next-generation deep space avionics integration lab near Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, to demonstrate command and control between the Deep Space Gateway and Orion.
“The lab will help reduce risk associated with critical data interfaces between Deep Space Gateway elements and provide an environment for astronauts to train for various mission scenarios,” says Lockheed.
“Because the Deep Space Gateway would be uninhabited for several months at a time, it has to be rugged, reliable and have the robotic capabilities to operate autonomously. Essentially it is a robotic spacecraft that is well-suited for humans when Orion is present,” said Pratt.
Orion will actually serve as the command deck for the gateway early on says Lockheed, “allowing for a safe and practical approach for the incremental build-up of deep space exploration capabilities.”
Boeing is another company working on a habitat prototype for the gateway, watch their idea above.
“The ability to simultaneously launch humans and cargo on SLS would allow us to assemble the gateway in four launches in the early 2020s,” said Pete McGrath, director of global sales and marketing for Boeing’s space exploration division.
Orbital ATK of Dulles, Virginia, who already flies ISS cargo resupply missions for NASA with their Antares rocket and keg-looking Cygnus spacecraft, wants to use the Cygnus as a habitat for the gateway too.
“Featuring a modular design, the habitat would serve both as a destination for crewed missions and as an unmanned testbed to prove-out the technologies needed for long-duration human space missions,” says the company. “The habitat is also envisioned as a base for lunar missions by international partners or commercial ventures. With additional habitation and propulsion modules, the habitat could be outfitted for a Mars pathfinder mission.”
The other 3 companies selected for prototypes are:
- Bigelow Aerospace of Las Vegas, Nevada
- Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Space Systems of Louisville, Colorado
- NanoRacks of Webster, Texas
“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 Human Exploration and Operations at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “The gateway could move to support robotic or partner missions to the surface of the moon, or to a high lunar orbit to support missions departing from the gateway to other destinations in the solar system.”
A Deep Space Transport (DST) would launch from the lunar gateway, such as for the Mars missions.
NASA stresses the gateway will be accessible to partners, such as commercial companies like SpaceX, a company with ambitious goals to not only land people on Mars, but eventually colonize it.