NASA is looking into the possibility of building a mini space station near the Moon in the 2020s, as a stepping stone to getting humans to Mars.
The idea was revealed by Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, during a presentation earlier this week and a following statement. Known as a gateway station, construction would begin in 2023, with human missions to Mars following a decade later.
This gateway station would be used as a place for astronauts to practice deep space operations and also as a place from which to fly missions to Mars. It would require three launches of the upcoming Space Launch System (SLS) to build.
“The first launch would deliver a 40kW power and propulsion system (mainly high-power electric propulsion) to cislunar space, which a crew of four astronauts would deploy during an eight- to 21-day mission,” Eric Berger notes for Ars Technica. “A second launch would deliver the habitation module itself, again during a crewed launch. And a final launch would provide the logistics module for the gateway.”
Construction of this gateway station would give NASA a clear purpose after it ends its involvement in the International Space Station (ISS), which is expected to happen in 2024 or 2028. This will free up about $3.5 billion of spending on human exploration, which could be used on these deep space endeavors.
This would see humans sent on a mission to orbit Mars in 2033, following a practice mission in cislunar space for about a year. Getting to Mars would likely include a flyby of Venus, which is pretty awesome. Once at the Red Planet, the astronauts would orbit and then head home. Future missions would look into landing on the Martian moon Phobos, and ultimately landing on the surface of Mars.
Getting to Mars will require a new deep space transport spacecraft, a successor to the Orion spacecraft that is currently in development. In its statement, NASA said this would be a “reusable vehicle that uses electric and chemical propulsion and would be specifically designed for crewed missions to destinations such as Mars”.
At a time when private companies are getting more and more involved in spaceflight, NASA noted there will be opportunities to partner with the private industry on these programs, in addition to other countries.
Mostly, though, it’s just good to see that NASA has some sort of plan for getting to Mars, which has been sorely lacking in recent years. The agency apparently has six possible ideas for building the mini space station around the Moon; here's hoping we see one of them come to fruition one day.
(H/T: Ars Technica)