Gateway Opens the Door into a New Generation of NASA Missions
In his latest hangout for the “Future in Space” series, Tony Darnell explores the complexities and seeks out answers to any questions that the public may have regarding the Gateway. His guests included Rick Mastracchio, former astronaut and Senior Director Operations Program Manager for Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems (NGIS); Jon Olansen, Gateway Production Manager at NASA Johnson Space Center; and Stephen Robinson, Director of the Space Technology Research Institute for Deep Space Habitat Design at UC Davis and former astronaut. From the perspectives of industrial partner, government and academia, each provided insight into the construction and operation of the Gateway.
A cross between the International Space Station (ISS) and a spaceship, the Gateway will serve as a critical piece of NASA’s goals of placing humans on the Moon and Mars. The Gateway will serve as an outpost in cislunar orbit for humans traveling to the Moon. It will contain labs, docking ports for other spacecraft and a small space for astronauts to live. Additionally, the Gateway’s presence in cislunar orbit would allow for reusable landers to travel to and from the spacecraft to the surface of the Moon as well as allow the Orion capsule to dock and deliver people and supplies.
ho worked to combine economics and space research. The grant is directed specifically to university undergraduate and graduate students interested in pursuing a similar career path.
“The term Gateway and the term outpost are very good descriptions in my mind in that it’s much different than the International Space Station, which is a long term habitat,” said Mastracchio. “Gateway and the outpost, at least at first, are going to be used for the astronauts to pass through and spend shorter period of time until we fully develop that gateway.”
Many people have questioned the need for the Gateway and asked why NASA does not just land directly on the surface. Olansen and Robinson explained the reasoning behind the Gateway in terms of sustainability and experimentation. The Gateway works as both a spacecraft that will allow humans to access the surface of the Moon repeatedly as well as provides important data for how future missions going to Mars will be operated. Serving as a testbed for what will have to be built to put humans on Mars, the Gateway resembles the type of outpost that would likely be put into the orbit of Mars.
“The biggest area is sustainability,” said Olansen. “We’re looking at creating a capability that allows us to continually be able to learn about this cislunar space and be able to repeatedly access the surface as we choose to do so in a much more sustainable fashion. Gateway gives us that opportunity.”
While still in its construction stages with the first power and propulsion element targeting to launch in 2022, the Gateway has already illustrated that it is by no means a purely NASA effort. Private contractors such as Maxar Technologies and Northrop Grumman have both been selected as contractors for the power and propulsion element and the HALO, or Habitation and Logistics Outpost, respectively. Also, research is a critical part of the construction process, as exemplified by Robinson. The challenge with the Gateway is that it has to be a sustainable habitat, both when occupied by humans as well as the rest of the year when it will be uninhabited. As a result, the final design will integrate significant machine learning and AI applications.
“We’re looking at this integration between the humans, the required robotics, design and repair on board and the learning software that can be used to advance with what the machine and crew are capable of doing,” said Robinson, who works on Habitats Optimized for Missions of Exploration (HOME). “We’re not designing gateway. We’re using gateway as a lesson plan for us to think about the correct context for the challenge.”
One of the most prominent questions from the audience asked how Gateway would be different from the Apollo missions that previously landed humans on the Moon’s surface.
While the ultimate destination may be the same, the purposes are quite different. Firstly, Gateway, along with many other aspects of the Artemis missions, is focused on sustainability. With Gateway, humanity is taking the first steps to maintaining a consistent presence on the Moon. Additionally, Gateway’s presence in cislunar orbit allows astronauts to access parts of the Moon that were not previously within reach, such as the South Pole. Robinson also pointed out from a design and operational perspective, the Apollo capsules were all extremely hardware heavy while Artemis spacecraft will be primarily operated by software.
“As we go now with the Artemis program, the idea is to not just do the same thing that we did with Apollo,” said Olansen. “We really want to focus on… the sustainability, the opportunity to actually be able to stay out in this lunar space and do much better development of the resources that exist out there. Not only explore the Moon itself, and create maybe even business cases and opportunities in the lunar vicinity, but then allow us to go out into further, deeper space, explore Mars and go even beyond.”
Victoria Woodburn is an undergraduate student studying Journalism and Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.