NASA's moon-orbiting space station will be claustrophobic, architect says

The lunar Gateway space station will be about one sixth of the size of the International Space Station.
The lunar Gateway space station will be about one sixth of the size of the International Space Station. (Image credit: ESA)

Living quarters of NASA's moon orbiting Gateway station will be so tiny that astronauts will not be able to stand upright inside, an architect involved in the station's design said. 

NASA and its international partners plan to begin construction of the Gateway station in the moon's orbit in the next couple of years. When complete near the end of the decade, the space lab will be about one sixth of the size of the International Space Station (ISS), featuring two habitation modules that will force crew members to all but forgo personal space. 

"The International Habitation module will have habitable space of about 8 cubic meters [280 cubic feet] and you will have to share it with three others," René Waclavicek, a space architect and design researcher at Austria-based LIQUIFER Space Systems, said at the Czech Space Week conference in Brno (opens in new tab), the Czech Republic, on Nov. 30, 2022. "In other words, that would be a room 2 by 2 by 2 meters [6.6 by 6.6 by 6.6 feet]. And you are locked in there. There are other rooms but they are not bigger and there are not many of them."

Related: Watch NASA's next-generation lunar Gateway space station build up in concept video

Waclavicek was involved in the design phase of the Europe-built International Habitation module (opens in new tab), or I-Hab, which is one of Gateway's two habitable elements, essentially bed rooms combined with lab space (the other being the Habitation and Logistics Outpost (opens in new tab), HALO, developed by Northrop Grumman in the U.S.). 

When working on the design, the architects had to bow down to practical demands dictated by the nature of the project, Waclavicek said. Their initial hopes for larger modules, offering a more generous volume of habitable space akin to that available at the International Space Station, had to be abandoned due to the impossibility of launching massive components to the moon

"We started off in the first phase with a cylinder with outer dimensions similar to what we know from the ISS," Waclavicek said. "That's about 4.5 m [15 feet] in diameter and 6 m [20 feet] long. But due to mass restrictions, we had to shrink it down to 3 m [10 feet] in outer dimensions. And that left us with an interior cross section of only 1.2 m by 1.2 m [4 feet by 4 feet]. Most of the internal volume is consumed by machinery, so it's essentially just a corridor, where you have to turn 90 degrees if you want to stretch out."

The International Space Station, with its 7.2 by 7.2 feet-wide (2.2 by 2.2 m) interiors, where astronauts could even perform space gymnastics routines, offers a luxury experience compared to what awaits moon explorers on Gateway. 

"[The I-Hab] really is just a cylinder with a hatch on each end and two hatches at the sides and a corridor going through the length axis," Waclavicek said. "Even if you want to pass one another, it's already quite difficult, you have to interrupt whatever you are doing in the moment to let the other fellow pass by you."

The crew quarters of the NASA-led lunar Gateway station will be so small that astronauts will not be able to stand upright. (Image credit: ESA/NASA/ATG Medialab)

Somehow, the architects managed to incorporate about 53 cubic feet (1.5 cubic m) of private space protected by closing doors for each crew member living inside the i-Hab. But the experience of staying aboard the Gateway will be challenging for more reasons than the cramped living quarters alone. As Waclavicek said, most of the module will be occupied by noisy and vibrating life-support technology, the constant hum of which will likely badly grate on the nerves of most mere mortals. 

"Actually, you are living in a machine room," Waclavicek said. "The life-support systems make noise, they have a lot of fans, and you have only 1.5 cubic m of private space where you can close the door and tame the noise."

The architects explored ways to ease the pressure on the crew and make the experience of staying aboard the Gateway more enjoyable, but they kept hitting technical limits, including those of launch vehicles available to send the module to its destination.

"We always get asked "where is the window?" Waclavicek said. "At the International Space Station, the most popular place where astronauts spend every free minute is the window. But there are technical problems associated with it. The moon is a thousand times farther away [than the ISS] and each window is a disturbance in the continuity of the structure. Also, glass is very heavy so a window is the first thing that gets canceled."

There will, however, be smaller windows on the Gateway, located in the refueling module ESPRIT, which will also be built in Europe. 

While the American HALO module may be launched as early as 2024, I-Hab's journey to the moon is not expected before 2027. Currently, Waclawicek said, the team is working on the Critical Design Review, an important milestone before hardware manufacturing can commence, and has started building a real-size mockup for testing human interaction with the habitat environment.

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Tereza Pultarova
Senior Writer

Tereza is a London-based science and technology journalist, aspiring fiction writer and amateur gymnast. Originally from Prague, the Czech Republic, she spent the first seven years of her career working as a reporter, script-writer and presenter for various TV programmes of the Czech Public Service Television. She later took a career break to pursue further education and added a Master's in Science from the International Space University, France, to her Bachelor's in Journalism and Master's in Cultural Anthropology from Prague's Charles University. She worked as a reporter at the Engineering and Technology magazine, freelanced for a range of publications including Live Science, Space.com, Professional Engineering, Via Satellite and Space News and served as a maternity cover science editor at the European Space Agency.

  • Trout_Dog
    We can do better.
    Reply
  • Classical Motion
    No more stations should be built without rotation. The body needs gravity for good health. Weightless experiments can be done in the center. And it gives us a gradient of gravity for further experiments.
    Reply
  • Mergatroid
    They should have let SpaceX use a Starship for a station They could park it in orbit and use it as needed. Solar panels could be attached. It's much bigger and would have a lot more room. And it could launch itself. They could also add one of those inflatable modules from, who is it, Bigalow? That would be a pretty big station.
    Reply
  • Rayjay
    A simple solution to meet launch requirements: inflatable module.
    Reply
  • JLB39401
    Mergatroid said:
    They should have let SpaceX use a Starship for a station They could park it in orbit and use it as needed. Solar panels could be attached. It's much bigger and would have a lot more room. And it could launch itself. They could also add one of those inflatable modules from, who is it, Bigalow? That would be a pretty big station.
    Bigelow Aerospace is defunct, unfortunately.
    Reply
  • BloodGodTitan
    Small steps always starts with modest spaces. The original Apollo crew literally flew around for days in a coffin! I hope Sierra Space's habitat could be quickly added to the Gateway! Wish bigelow hadn't imploded literally..but it did prove with BEAM these habitats work in space. Hopefully Sierra wont need that kind of extended test
    Reply
  • dv8inpp
    Mergatroid said:
    They should have let SpaceX use a Starship for a station They could park it in orbit and use it as needed. Solar panels could be attached. It's much bigger and would have a lot more room. And it could launch itself. They could also add one of those inflatable modules from, who is it, Bigalow? That would be a pretty big station.

    I would have thought they could re-purpose the Lunar Starship and just park it back at the gateway, just need a big docking adapter. Park a few of them there and you'll have enough room to stretch your legs.
    Reply
  • dv8inpp
    I wonder how big an inflatable module a starship could launch? All current inflatable are made for heavy lift rockets with small fairings
    Reply
  • apogeebreaks
    You would think they could have done something similar to Skylab, launch the larger station into lower orbit then launch another booster that could attach to it and send it on its way to the moon. If I understand correctly all you need to do is nudge it in the direction you want, with no need for constant pressure, even wait maybe 6 months for it to arrive at the moon.
    Reply
  • Unclear Engineer
    It is more than a "nudge" to move something heavy from low Earth orbit to the Moon's orbit.

    But, there is another approach besides sending up a whole new rocket booster - send up new fuel for the one that is already in low Earth orbit. That is what SpaceX is planning to do with Starship, and there are currently proof-of-concept missions for in-orbit refueling.

    So, at least the plan to use a Starship for transit between lunar orbit and lunar surface seems inconsistent with the plan for the lunar orbiting habitat. The "taxi" is going to be far more spacious than the "hotel".

    Which brings me back to the whole concept of needing any of the Artemis equipment if Starship is successful in getting to the Moon, landing, and returning to lunar orbit, which NASA is currently contracting SpaceX to do. Why not simply put the NASA astronauts in the Starship as it goes to the Moon and not use the Aremis equipment to get there?

    I am reading between the lines that NASA is not yet ready to bet everything on SpaceX's Starship being successful, at least not in the time frame that NASA is trying to achieve. Consistent with that belief, NASA has recently established a contract with another company to provide a ferry vehicle between lunar orbit and lunar surface.
    Reply