As NASA plans missions to the moon and future deep-space destinations, the Agency is developing an advanced space station to orbit the moon. Appropriately named, the Gateway will serve as a home base for missions to the moon’s surface, including the Artemis 3 mission to land the first woman and next man on the moon by 2024. From facilitating short-term missions, the station will evolve and pioneer what will become the first sustainable human presence on the moon.
First Steps Towards the Gateway
Even before the announcement of the Artemis program and NASA’s Moon to Mars strategy, engineers in SACD’s Space Missions Analysis Branch (SMAB) at Langley Research Center have been developing a concept for a lunar outpost. In fact, the idea for an orbiting lunar station has been considered for over a decade. Since early 2016, SMAB personnel have been working with NASA’s Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) program to review proposals from dozens of industry partners. SMAB’s space engineers studied contractor’s proposals in search of ideas and research to improve an existing design.
While SMAB personnel and NextStep partners steadily refined their concept for the lunar outpost, the Future Capabilities Team at Kennedy Space Center in Houston was developing designs for a similar lunar space station. The engineers at Langley and Kennedy collaborated to create guidelines and prerequisite assumptions for the station’s design. However, the teams remained largely independent.
Paving the Way for the Artemis Generation
With the 2019 announcement of the Artemis exploration program and the Moon to Mars strategy, NASA set its focus on returning to the moon, this time to establishing a sustainable presence. Under the direction of NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC, the teams a Langley and Kennedy combined their research and designs into what would become the official Gateway program.
SMAB Spearheads Cross-Program Collaboration
To succeed, the Artemis program relies on a series of NASA projects, including the Space Launch Systems, the Orion space craft, the Lunar Lander, and Gateway. Consequently, continual communication and collaboration between each project became imperative. SMAB personnel at Langley spearheaded cross-program collaborations between the Gateway and the other programs, verifying that each project operated under the same engineering requirements and assumptions.
During their cross-program analysis, SMAB engineers paid special attention to the interfaces of each program, the areas the programs actually overlap and interact. For example, the Orion spacecraft will ferry astronauts to and from the Gateway and will need to dock on the space station. The interface between Orion and Gateway need to be analyzed extremely carefully to ensure Orion can dock successfully. Even small inconsistencies between the programs’ assumptions and requirements could endanger both mission success and astronauts’ lives.
SMAB Leads Research Into the Human Factor
SMAB personnel have also made significant contributions to research on the human interfaces with the Gateway’s systems. Astronauts will call the lunar outpost home for up to months at a time. Consequently, ensuring the safety and comfort of the crew is of the utmost importance. SMAB personnel led the team in researching how to design the Gateway’s human habitats and how astronauts could best interact with the station.
As part of the study, researchers considered data from the International Space Station (ISS), which houses astronauts for extended missions. Although the ISS is a valuable comparison, sustaining astronauts in deep-space presents a unique set of challenges.
While the ISS orbits the earth’s atmosphere about 220 miles above the surface of the earth, the Gateway will orbit the moon about 250,000 miles away from the earth. Researchers will have to account for factors like variable gravity and prolonged exposure to space radiation that have never before had to be considered.
Supporting the Moon to Mars strategy, researchers will leverage the data they gain from sustaining life on the Gateway to plan for future deep-space destinations like Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter. In many ways, the Gateway will serve as a prototype for many future human deep-space habitats.
Evolvable Design and Program Schedule
Designed to be evolvable, the Gateway will be launched and assembled in increments. Throughout the space station’s proposed 15-year lifetime, Gateway will undergo a series of additions to improve the station’s capabilities and livability for crew member. With the next moon landing scheduled for 2024, the launch of the initial Gateway elements in 2022 is fast approaching.
By 2023, the Gateway will consist of the power propulsion unit and the HALO (Habitat And Logistics Outpost), a small human habitat capable of supporting astronauts during short missions to the moon. The International Habitat addition to the Gateway in 2025 will support month-long missions while a future US Habitat addition will support astronauts during two- to three-month missions.
Continued Support and Looking Forward
Although many SMAB engineers have shifted their efforts to developing the Lunar Lander and future Mars missions, SMAB personnel continue to support Gateway, especially in cross-program collaboration. Building on decades of NASA research, the SMAB team has been instrumental in supporting Artemis through its leadership in the Gateway program. Developing the Gateway and supporting the joint Artemis program is just one of the many ways SMAB is contributing to space exploration, innovating technology, and pushing the boundaries of human understanding.