NASA has said it wants to start doing lunar landings by the 2020s, as it set out its vision for the future of American human space exploration.
As reported by SpaceNews, NASA acting administrator Robert Lightfoot (remember, NASA has been without a proper leader for more than a year) outlined the new plan for NASA up to 2030, with Mars recently being dropped as the goal.
“At the Moon, we’ll have people transiting from the platform back down to the surface of the Moon,” he said. “We’ll have a constant set of flights going back and forth that will allow us to do the work that we want to do on the Moon.”
NASA’s latest budget was outlined the other day, which had some bad news for certain scientific missions and the International Space Station (ISS). But it also provided our first glimpse at some of its human exploration plans, including this goal to return to the Moon.
This will be made possible by a lunar space station that NASA is planning to build, called the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (previously known as the Deep Space Gateway). The first part of this, the power and propulsion unit, will be launched in 2022.
Then from 2023 onwards, NASA plans to launch habitats to the station, which will be positioned relatively near the Moon. These are currently being designed as part of NASA’s NextSTEP program, and will allow crews to stay on the station for 30 to 60 days at a time.
NASA will begin with small robotic lunar lander missions, before moving on to larger missions that can take humans to the surface. Lightfoot said they were looking at the “latter part of the decade for humans to the Moon”. These will be people from the US and other countries like Russia.
“The Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway will give us a strategic presence in cislunar space,” William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator at NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, said in a statement. “It will drive our activity with commercial and international partners and help us explore the Moon and its resources. We will ultimately translate that experience toward human missions to Mars.”
NASA also said the station would have an airlock for astronauts to conduct spacewalks, while it will also be used for scientific research and technology demonstrations. Commercial cargo missions – like how SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are used on the ISS – will be used to resupply the station. The upcoming Space Launch System (SLS) rocket (first launch in 2022) and the Orion spacecraft will be used to take astronauts there.
The exact details of the lunar excursions have not yet been revealed. But it’s a step in some sort of direction to actually have some dates in place.