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NASA’s planning to send people back to the Moon’s surface in about a decade

NASA’s planning to send people back to the Moon’s surface in about a decade


First, astronauts are scheduled to fly to a space station near the Moon by 2024

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An artistic rendering of NASA’s planned lunar station Gateway.
An artistic rendering of NASA’s planned lunar station Gateway.
Image: NASA

NASA officials presented their latest goals yesterday for human space exploration over the next decade, detailing the agency’s plans to build a space station in orbit around the Moon and then send humans to and from the lunar surface. Based on its timeline, NASA is aiming for the first astronauts to visit this lunar station — called the Gateway — as early as 2024, with human landings on the Moon happening sometime after 2026.

This timeline matches what Vice President Mike Pence asserted during a speech at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston last week: astronauts would visit the Gateway before the end of Trump’s (potential) second term. However, this means NASA’s return to the lunar surface, a policy directive made by President Trump last year, won’t happen during his administration, even if he is reelected.

NASA’s return to the lunar surface won’t happen during this administration

Even before Trump directed NASA to return to the Moon, the space agency had been making plans to build the Gateway in lunar orbit. The station, called both the Deep Space Gateway and the Lunar Orbital Platform Gateway in the past, is meant to serve as a distant outpost for astronauts. It will allow them to conduct research in the deep space environment around the Moon and use the module to travel to and from the lunar surface or even deeper into space. As NASA envisions it, the Gateway will consist of a few main components: a habitat module for the astronaut crew, a module that provides power and propulsion, and an airlock to allow incoming spacecraft to dock with the station.

Image: NASA

Despite all these plans to have the Gateway up and running by 2024, none of its pieces have been built yet. The first piece NASA wants to make is the power module, which the agency hopes to launch by 2022 on a commercial rocket. NASA hopes to create the element through a public-private partnership, however, no contracts have been made to build the module yet, and NASA has yet to decide which rocket it will launch. Meanwhile, the other major piece of the Gateway, the habitat module, is reliant on the completion of the space agency’s massive new rocket, the Space Launch System, or SLS.

NASA is currently preparing the SLS for its debut flight, a voyage dubbed Exploration Mission 1, or EM-1. During this trip, the SLS will launch an uncrewed capsule called Orion on a path around the Moon. After that, NASA plans to put people on the rocket in 2022 for a mission called EM-2, which will also fly around the Moon. Sometime around then, another SLS rocket is also slated to launch a robotic spacecraft to Jupiter’s water moon Europa.

Then, in 2024, once those three missions are complete, that’s when NASA hopes to send astronauts, and presumably a habitat module, to the Gateway on a trip called EM-3. However, the space agency will need an even more powerful version of the SLS to pull that off. The first three missions of SLS — EM-1, EM-2, and the Europa mission — will all use a less powerful version of the vehicle called Block 1. EM-3 requires the SLS Block 1B, a version of the rocket that will have a much more powerful element known as the Exploration Upper Stage, which is still in very early stages of development.

Image: NASA

So getting people to the Gateway by the 2024 deadline is contingent on a lot of new technology being created within very aggressive timeframes. And the timelines are incredibly optimistic given that the SLS program has suffered from numerous delays over the last decade. A lot of complicated elements will need to come together quickly without any further scheduling issues.

NASA’s road to the Moon’s surface is unclear

After EM-3, NASA’s road to the Moon’s surface is unclear. In order to get humans to and from the Gateway, NASA will need to build a lander that’s capable of putting people on the Moon and then launching them off the surface again. This piece of technology is critical since it’s key for the survival of Moon-faring astronauts. NASA has said that it plans an entire lunar lander campaign, where the agency will work with private aerospace companies to make small robotic Moon landers and then eventually human landers. But based on charts shown at yesterday’s meeting, it seems that 2026 is the earliest any human landers will touch down on the Moon.

So whatever happens, NASA astronauts won’t be on the Moon’s surface during this current administration, regardless of what happens during the presidential election in 2020. Trump once joked during a discussion with astronauts on the ISS that NASA should accelerate human missions to Mars to coincide with his presidency. “Well, we want to try to do it during my first term or at worst during my second term,” Trump said. “So we’ll have to speed that up a little bit, okay?”

But now, it seems that even the lunar surface is out of reach of the administration’s grasp.