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The Gateway: NASA's proposed lunar space station

The Gateway, formerly known as the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, is a proposed NASA program that would bring astronauts to the moon to operate a lunar space station. The concept has generated a wealth of research and numerous political discussions since 2017, especially because NASA's stated goal under the Trump administration is to return to the moon before going to Mars.

The hardware and mission design are still in the early stages of development, but as of mid-2018, NASA envisions a lunar outpost (supplied by Space Launch System rockets) that would hold four people. Unlike the International Space Station, the outpost would not always have a crew on board and would have the capability to perform scientific experiments autonomously. The prime contractor for the first module should be announced in 2019.

In August 2018, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence announced that astronauts could fly to the lunar space station as early as 2024; however, it's likely that date will change as design and construction plans proceed.

In the same month as Pence's announcement, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine told reporters that the cost of the Gateway won't be nearly as much as the cost of the crewed Apollo missions in the 1960s. NASA's current budget is now about 0.5 percent of annual federal funds, compared to its former height of 4.5 percent in the mid-1960s. The agency plans to begin the Gateway project without drawing on increased federal funding.

First steps to a gateway

In 2012, NASA publicly discussed the idea of a lunar station on the moon's far side — called the Deep Space Habitat. A few years later, in 2014 and 2015, NASA began to consider the idea of "cislunar habitats" as a way to fly humans on longer missions in the 2020s. The agency envisioned a small shelter where astronauts could assemble telescopes, operate rovers and perform scientific research.

In March 2015, NASA awarded several contracts under its Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) program to companies developing concepts for lunar modules. The goal was to build modules would attach to the Orion spacecraft (a deep-space vehicle under development by NASA) and allow for missions of about 60 days in duration. The agency also discussed cislunar habitats in a "Journey to Mars" report published in October 2015.

One of the earliest mentions of a lunar space station, then known as the Deep Space Gateway, was in an article published on NASA's website in March 2017. As NASA described it at the time: "The agency is ... looking to build a crew tended spaceport in lunar orbit within the first few missions that would serve as a gateway to deep space and the lunar surface. This deep space gateway would have a power bus, a small habitat to extend crew time, docking capability, an airlock, and [would be] serviced by logistics modules to enable research."

NASA is planning a deep-space habitat around the moon called the Gateway, as the next destination for astronauts. The cis-lunar space station will be a waypoint for future missions to the moon and beyond. (Image credit: NASA)

The agency said the gateway would be useful not only for lunar orbiting missions, but also for increasing the breadth and depth of space exploration in general. "The area of space near the moon offers a true deep space environment to gain experience for human missions that push farther into the solar system, access the lunar surface for robotic missions but with the ability to return to Earth if needed in days rather than weeks or months."

In July 2017, NASA issued a competitive request for information about the Power and Propulsion Element, the module that is expected to supply electrical power and chemical and electrical propulsion to the gateway. As a result, five study contracts were issued in November 2017.

That September, NASA and Roscosmos (the Russian space agency) signed a joint cooperation agreement to explore the moon and deep space, which included use of the gateway.

Back to the moon

NASA's mission to return to the moon was bumped up in the agency's priority list after President Donald Trump's first space policy directive was announced in December 2017. Trump directed the agency to focus on returning to the moon before attempting to reach Mars (reaching Mars had been the primary goal during President Barack Obama's administration).

Trump's announcement was in line with a previous recommendation from the newly reconstituted National Space Council. The council, which hadn't been active since the early 1990s, was re-formed in June 2017. Later that year, its members concluded that lunar exploration should be NASA's primary goal.

The Deep Space Gateway was renamed the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway in February 2018, when NASA made its 2019 budget request. (More recently, NASA has referred to the project as simply "the Gateway.") That document also suggested that the International Space Station should conclude operations in 2024 to make budgetary room for the gateway.

NASA held a Deep Space Gateway Science Workshop from Feb. 27 to March 1, 2018, in Denver, which helped the agency formulate a science plan for the lunar complex. Also in 2018, NASA launched the Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts-Academic Linkages (RASC-AL) design competition for university students, which focused on developing concepts for the gateway.

The agency is also encouraging the development of international gateway partnerships, especially from the current International Space Station partners (Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada), as it formulates the concept of the gateway.

Further reading:

This article was updated to change references from the 2018 name of this mission, the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, to the more recently used title of the Gateway. Changes were made by Reference Editor Vicky Stein.

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