NASA says it’s building a gateway to the Moon—critics say it’s just a gate18 min read

“It is the next giant leap into quicksand.”

It is the year 2026. A veteran astronaut, Nicole Mann, leads her crew of four through a hatch from the Orion spacecraft onto a small space station near the Moon. Inside, it smells something like a new car. Outside, all is splendor. Below the station, half of the Moon reflects the sunlight—shimmering, silvery, and silent. The depths of space blacken the other half of the orb. In the distance, a blue and green Earth also basks in the Sun’s glow. Humanity’s cradle and its future among the stars share the vista.

A rendering of NASA’s proposed lunar gateway.

The 49-year-old Mann, who goes by the call sign “Duke,” begins a series of communications checks. There is a two-second delay before Mission Control responds with cheers and high fives. For decades after Apollo, humans had remained confined in low-Earth orbit. No more. After Mann’s crew spends a dozen days outfitting the new “Gateway” in orbit around the Moon, NASA will finally have a toehold in deep space again. From here, humans may soon go down to the lunar surface or make final preparations for missions to Mars.

Such a future scenario, at least, is what the space agency wants Congress, the White House, and the American public to imagine when envisioning a lunar space station, which NASA proposes to build in the 2020s. “I think about it as a port in space, a dry dock for activities that come and go,” said Jason Crusan, a senior NASA official from headquarters overseeing development of the Gateway.

Over the last three years, Crusan and other leaders of human exploration at NASA have quietly refined plans for the Gateway and, perhaps more importantly, crafted a rationale to build the outpost near the Moon. So far, their plan has worked. Vice President Mike Pence has endorsed the Gateway, as has the new NASA administrator, Jim Bridenstine.

“There’s no other architecture that I’ve been presented with, given the current budgets we have, that enables all of what we want to do,” Bridenstine recently told Ars. “And so I came to the conclusion that the Gateway is the right approach.”

NASA, too, has won over the lion’s share of aerospace contractors and their vast lobbying armies by offering contracts for six different designs for the Gateway’s habitat module. Moreover, agency officials have repeatedly said they would invite commercial companies like SpaceX to deliver cargo and provide other services for the station. Almost everyone stands a reasonable chance of getting a piece of the Gateway action.

This has not left much oxygen in the room for dissenters—publicly, at least. However, a few critics persist, and they raise valid questions about the lunar Gateway. Robert Zubrin, a high-profile aerospace engineer outside of NASA’s policymaking process, has emerged as a chief antagonist.

What is the lunar Gateway? These charts shared by NASA officials at a meeting of the National Space Council in late August offer the most public detail to date.

“It is the next giant leap into quicksand,” Zubrin argued during a recent meeting of The Mars Society. “If you wanted to send people to the Moon or Mars, would you take some of your money to build a lunar orbit space station on the way? You would not.”

Zubrin and others argue that the Gateway exists not to smooth NASA’s way to the Moon or Mars, but rather to provide a destination for the agency’s expensive rocket, the Space Launch System, and Orion spacecraft. These vehicles, built for NASA by large aerospace firms with hundreds of subcontractors around the country, cannot presently go to the Moon or Mars. Combined, they’re just not powerful enough. NASA has struggled for the better part of a decade to find something for them to do. And after wandering in the wilderness, agency leaders finally settled on the Gateway concept.

“Let’s be honest about this,” Zubrin said of NASA’s human exploration plans. “This is not a purpose-driven program, this is a vendor-driven program. Imagine running your business to please your vendors.”

Getting to Gateway

One need not regurgitate decades of space policy history to understand why NASA now espouses development of a lunar Gateway that will cost at a minimum $10 billion and almost certainly many multiples of that. Still, a little background helps.

The short synopsis is this: in 2004, George W. Bush wanted to send humans back to the Moon and on to Mars. NASA engineers, led by Administrator Mike Griffin, responded by devising a large, expensive system to accomplish this that was never properly funded. When Barack Obama became president, he canceled the human return to the Moon, because it was woefully behind schedule and unaffordable, and the president urged cancellation of Griffin’s large rocket and spacecraft. Leery of losing jobs and NASA’s institutional knowledge, Congress pushed back hard on Obama. While the Moon remained off the table, NASA was told to build a big rocket, now redesigned as the Space Launch System, and to continue with the Orion spacecraft.

This left a big problem. What to do with SLS and Orion? Critics came to call the SLS a “rocket to nowhere,” because NASA had no clear need for it. Sure, the rocket and spacecraft could fly around the Moon, in a repeat of NASA’s 1968 Apollo 8 mission, but it could not land on another world with gravity.

Eventually, the Obama administration solved this problem with a new destination, suggested by a blue-ribbon panel known as the Augustine commission. “By 2025 we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first-ever crewed missions beyond the Moon into deep space,” Obama said at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center in 2010. “So we’ll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history.”

At first, this seemed like a great idea. An asteroid offered a new destination, and it also had the critical benefit of a shallow gravity well. NASA could go there without having to build expensive landers and ascent vehicles, which it could not afford due to SLS and Orion’s outsized costs (more than $3 billion a year).

President Obama announced the asteroid mission during a major space policy speech at Kennedy Space Center in 2010.

Unfortunately, after searching for a few years, scientists could not find a suitable asteroid that came close enough to Earth for astronauts to reach it in a timely manner, as the Orion vehicle could only support a crew for 21 days in deep space. NASA concluded that it lacked the budget and tools to send humans to an asteroid by 2025—or really, any date for a long, long time.

So around the middle of this decade, the agency’s clever engineers devised a plan that was both feasible and technically met the president’s goal of visiting an asteroid by 2025. While elegant in these regards, the mission was something of a sham. The “Asteroid Redirect Mission” called for the agency to fly a robotic spacecraft out into the Solar System, grab an SUV-sized boulder off the surface of an asteroid, and bring it back to the vicinity of the Moon. Astronauts would then visit it in 2025 via Orion. It was clear this mission would be canceled long before Obama left the White House.

Therefore, around three years ago, with NASA having spent the better part of $20 billion (and counting) to develop SLS and Orion, the agency still needed something to do with these vehicles.

Over time, engineers at Johnson Space Center, with input from other centers, devised the lunar Gateway. Why not? NASA already knew how to design and build a space station, as it had done with the International Space Station. The new outpost could be placed far enough from the Moon’s gravity well such that SLS and Orion could be used to build the Gateway, and when that was done, NASA would be guaranteed an annual SLS rocket launch to deliver crews there for 30- to 60-day missions.

The Gateway solved NASA’s political and technical problems. Therefore as the asteroid mission died an early, unmourned death, the Gateway ascended. This plan provided NASA’s legions of contractors something to work toward, and Gateway elements could be designed such that only the SLS and its larger cargo capability—rather than significantly cheaper, albeit less powerful, rockets—could deliver them into lunar orbit.

All NASA engineers had to do now was come up with a practical use for it.

The argument for

Soon, they did just that. NASA began holding academic meetings with scientists to seek their input for what a stable platform in lunar orbit could do for them. They worked with flight controllers and human performance experts to understand how systems could be tested on the Gateway to further understand the health effects of the deep space environment and how to build hardier systems for keeping astronauts alive during long-duration journeys to Mars. The agency also reached out to international and commercial partners for help with landers that might travel from the Gateway down to the Moon.

In early August, when Ars met with Bridenstine in Houston, we asked about his change of heart regarding the Gateway. As a Congressman, he had retained skepticism about the Gateway. The lunar ice and asteroid resources he wanted to develop, after all, weren’t orbiting a few thousand kilometers from the Moon. But Bridenstine said that as he’d come to understand all of the things the lunar outpost could do for space exploration, his position had changed. “I haven’t always been on the same sheet that I am right now,” he explained. “Spending time at NASA has changed my view.”

The near-rectilinear halo orbit in comparison with other lunar orbits.

Because of Orion’s limited maneuvering capability, measured formally as change-in-velocity or delta-v, NASA intends to position the Gateway in what is called a near-rectilinear halo orbit. This elliptical orbit brings the Gateway to within 1,500km of the lunar surface but also as far away as 70,000km. By contrast, low-lunar orbit is about 100km above the Moon’s surface. (For a much longer discussion of Gateway orbit options, this paper offers a great overview).

Bridenstine, who strongly supports private companies that want to work with NASA, lower the cost of spaceflight, and devise reusable systems, said the Gateway will provide critical infrastructure near the Moon for commercial partners.

“It’s not optimum for getting to the surface of the Moon, but it enables us with a low propulsion capability to stay in that orbit for a very, very long period of time,” he said. “What we want to do is enable more people to have access to the lunar surface than ever before, and more people to have access to lunar orbit than ever before.”

By limiting the size of the Gateway, NASA does not seek to build a second International Space Station, enormous in size, scope, and cost. That facility, easier to reach in low-Earth orbit, cost NASA and its international partners $100 billion and more than a decade of in-space construction time to build.

NASA also intends for the initial Gateway to serve as the template for a second, similar structure that could serve as a deep-space transport that would eventually take crews of people to Mars. The first Gateway, then, will serve as a testbed for the kinds of technologies needed to reach Mars. Today, for example, some components of life support systems have about a six-month average before failure. NASA would like to mature that technology to a 30-month failure for a deep space transport.

Finally, Bridenstine asserted that a Gateway, rather than a series of missions to the lunar surface, will extend NASA’s influence beyond low-Earth orbit permanently into deep space.

“What we don’t want to do is go to the surface of the Moon, prove that we can do it, and then be done,” he said. “We want to go to stay. And I’ve been convinced that the Gateway allows us to take advantage of commercial and international partners in a more robust way so that we are there to stay, and it enables us to get to more parts of the Moon than ever before, and it enables us to get to Mars.”

“Stuck with it”

There is nothing that Bob Zubrin wants to do more than get to Mars. He has proposed all manner of space architectures that would allow NASA, with the help of commercial companies, to send humans directly to Mars. But Zubrin has bowed to the desires of the White House, Congress, and now NASA to focus its efforts on going to the Moon first.

“NASA’s human spaceflight program needs a goal, and that goal should be Mars,” he said. “But if they’re not yet ready to take on that challenge, I can offer some sympathy for that.” Maybe, he mused, NASA needs to get back the confidence it had during the 1960s and the glory days of Apollo.

However, Zubrin and other critics view the Gateway as a cul-de-sac that would divert billions of dollars in funding and steal a decade or more in time from landing on the surface of another world. While it is true that NASA may establish a foothold in deep space, of what use is such a place if it doesn’t move NASA closer to prolonged human stays on the Moon or Mars?

“It is imposing a liability on the program, and then we’ll be stuck with it,” he said. “This thing will cost many billions a year. Here you have NASA wanting to escape from the International Space Station because of its budgetary requirements. So they’re proposing to build another one?”

Zubrin has proposed an alternative to the White House, which he calls “Moon Direct,” emphasizing maximum access to the lunar surface, minimum development and recurring cost, minimum schedule, and minimum risk. He does not propose to have all the answers (OK, maybe he thinks he does), but his point is that he believes there are better ways to go about returning to the Moon using mostly existing technology.

NASA’s Gateway approach, he said, doesn’t ease NASA’s pathway back to the Moon. Rather, Zubrin believes it solves the desires of Congress and the agency to keep current contractors fed and to find something for the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft to do.

“The real problem with the lunar-orbit Gateway isn’t that it’s useless, or it will cost lots of money, or that it will continue to cost lots of money for decades, taking money away from things we really want to do,” he said. “The real problem is the form of thinking it represents. That instead of spending money to do things, we need to do things to spend money.”

Delta-v toll

There is an argument to be made that the Gateway actually makes it substantially more difficult to return to the Moon or to go on to Mars.

Delta-v governs what is possible in spaceflight and what is not. To reach low-Earth orbit, the first stage of a rocket burns fuel like hell and expends the majority of the booster’s energy in doing so. From that point, it’s up to the smaller second or sometimes even smaller third stage of a rocket to push its payload beyond low-Earth orbit (LEO) toward a destination in deep space.

Because these upper stages are smaller and less powerful and the thrusters on spacecraft themselves even less capable, it is imperative to minimize the amount of maneuvering needed to reach one’s destination.

In the case of going from LEO to the lunar surface, the delta-v required is 6.1 km/second (it takes 4.1 km/s to get from LEO to low-lunar orbit and another 2.0 to get from there down to the surface). By contrast, to go from LEO to the Gateway’s proposed halo orbit—and then to the lunar surface—requires a delta-v of 6.85km/s.

Put another way, a spacecraft could leave LEO, reach the surface of the Moon, and return directly to Earth for a total delta-v cost of 9.1km/s. To do the same mission through the Gateway, both coming and going, requires a delta-v of 10.65km/s, a 17 percent increase. This is one reason why Zubrin has taken to calling the lunar Gateway a “toll booth,” because it adds significantly to the energies needed to reach the Moon (or Mars, if spacecraft first went to the Gateway and then on to the Red Planet).

In this case, NASA isn’t just paying the toll with the Gateway, in terms of delta-v, it’s also paying to build the toll booth itself. Instead of spending the next decade going directly to the Moon, NASA will use that time to build a station near the Moon that will require extra energy to get down to the Moon.

There are a few other prominent people in the aerospace community willing to go public with similar concerns about the Gateway. At a meeting of the National Space Council this summer, with Vice President Mike Pence present, former astronaut Terry Virts echoed these sentiments. He has continued speaking out and hopes that if the Gateway does get built, it could at least serve a more useful purpose.

After retiring from NASA, former astronaut Terry Virts has become an author and public speaker.

“I fully support the new strategy of going to the Moon first and using that as a proving ground to eventually send humans to Mars and beyond,” Virts told Ars. “But the original Gateway concept was conceived to give SLS and Orion a mission, not develop technologies we need for Moon or Mars exploration. The current concept of operations for Gateway will make getting to the lunar surface more expensive without furthering critical exploration technologies, all while consuming the vast majority of the human exploration budget.”

Virts believes that one possible way the Gateway vehicle could prove useful would be to have it orbit between the Earth and Moon, in a similar way that future transfer vehicles will orbit between the Earth and Mars. That may provide a way to test some important operational concepts, such as high-speed rendezvous and transfer vehicle operations that NASA will need for deep space.

Behind the scenes, some members of Congress do worry the Gateway will indefinitely delay human missions to Mars. Additionally, some senior space advisers to the Trump administration are also raising doubts about the Gateway. But it is not clear whether President Trump himself has been fully made aware that NASA will not come close to the surface of the Moon during his presidency. And because the Gateway has strong momentum behind it, at this point it would take a strong presidential intervention to stop development.

Pressing on

NASA is pressing ahead with the Gateway concept, in its halo orbit, with a sense of urgency. This week, agency leaders confirmed that they intend to launch the first element of the outpost in 2022, which will provide power and propulsion. The next launch will bring two components: a package comprising ESPRIT, a module proposed by an international partner that includes a science airlock, fuel storage and refueling, additional communications capabilities, and external payload accommodations; and a US utilization module that includes a small pressurized volume with docking ports, external robotic interfaces, and consumables.

These components, combined with Orion’s life support capabilities, can support the crew for up to 15 days on the Gateway. These components could be ready for a launch as early as 2023, although NASA seems unlikely to have a rocket ready by then.

Such a flight would require a more powerful version of the SLS rocket, complete with a brand-new upper stage, to allow both Orion and the new Gateway components to reach the halo orbit. It seems improbable that this SLS variant will be ready by 2024 or even 2025.

Officially, here’s NASA’s plan for sending humans to the lunar surface before the end of the 2030s.

“We are very much aggressively going after the development and deployment of the Gateway,” Crusan said at a late August meeting of NASA’s Advisory Council. “Meaning very fast development schedules. I don’t think we should change that. I think we should be aggressive on these things and set goals and tailoring our acquisition processes so that we can get to the quickness and pace that we’d like to get to.”

This type of language signals that, while NASA aspires to the stated launch dates, if anything goes wrong they probably can’t hold to them. And in big aerospace development programs, things invariably go wrong. Reasonably, it seems unlikely that the Gateway in its original configuration, with a large habitat module and a separate airlock, would be completed much before 2030.

Luckily for Nicole Mann, a talented member of NASA’s 2013 class of astronauts who might be chosen for one of the first missions into deep space, she has other things to do in the meantime. Recently, NASA selected her to fly on the maiden flight of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft to the International Space Station in 2019. Perhaps one day, she will visit another station, much farther from Earth.

Or, depending on how the space policy battles in Washington, DC, play out, perhaps not.

Sources: • Arstechnica

Featured Image: NASA

Sebastien Clarke
Sebastien Clarke

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