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NASA Deep Space Gateway
An artist’s conception shows the Deep Space Gateway in the vicinity of the moon, with an Orion crew vehicle nearby. (NASA Illustration)

President Donald Trump hasn’t yet revealed his choice for NASA administrator, but the space agency is already shifting the focus of its exploration program to a way station known as the Deep Space Gateway.

The concept for a habitable platform in the vicinity of the moon, known as cislunar space, was fleshed out this week on NASA’s website, and during meetings of the NASA Advisory Council in Washington, D.C.

Payloads and astronauts could be sent to the gateway starting in the 2020s using the heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket and the Orion crew vehicle, both of which are still under development.

The gateway would be a crew-tended spaceport with a high-power electric propulsion system.

“I envision different partners, both international and commercial, contributing to the gateway and using it in a variety of ways with a system that can move to different orbits to enable a variety of missions,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations. “The gateway could move to support robotic or partner missions to the surface of the moon, or to a high lunar orbit to support missions departing from the gateway to other destinations in the solar system.”

During the advisory council’s sessions, Gerstenmaier said modules for the gateway would be sent to its assembly point in a series of SLS missions running through 2026, supplemented by commercial shipments.

A new type of reusable vehicle, known as the Deep Space Transport, would be developed for long-duration missions beyond the moon – including trips to Mars. The transport would take advantage of electric as well as chemical propulsion, and could use the gateway as its home base.

Image: Concept for NASA Deep Space Transport
This graphic shows one concept for a Deep Space Transport. (NASA Illustration)

Sometime in the late 2020s, the gateway and the transport vehicle would go through a yearlong “shakedown cruise” in the vicinity of the moon to validate the system’s readiness for missions to Mars and other deep-space destinations.

The tentative timetable shared with the advisory council calls for the Mars trips to begin in the 2030s, which is consistent with NASA’s previously announced exploration goals.

Gerstenmaier emphasized that the plan would incorporate contributions from partner organizations such as the European and Canadian space agencies, as well as commercial ventures.

His timetable assumes that NASA will proceed with the development of a more powerful version of the SLS, known as Block 2.

The plan leaves room for the launch of NASA’s Europa Clipper probe to an ice-covered moon of Jupiter in 2022. But it doesn’t leave room for retrieving and studying a piece of an asteroid, as had been planned by the Obama administration. NASA has essentially acknowledged that the Asteroid Retrieval Mission is no longer in the cards, although the ARM program to work on solar electric propulsion will continue.

Gerstenmaier indicated that NASA was close to deciding whether it’ll be feasible to put a crew on the first flight of the SLS, known as Exploration Mission 1 or EM-1. If the answer is yes, EM-1 is likely to be delayed from late 2018 to 2019 or 2020.

That flight would send an Orion vehicle on a nonstop round trip ranging far beyond the moon and back, by virtue of what’s known as a free-return trajectory. The only question about EM-1 is whether NASA can justify the added cost and risk of putting a crew on board.

There are other, bigger questions about the overall plan: Does it mesh with President Donald Trump’s dream to see “American footprints on distant worlds”? Will Congress go along with it? And will NASA’s 15-year-plus timetable for journeys to Mars be outpaced by SpaceX’s grander plan for Mars settlement?

Answers could start coming in the next few weeks, but those answers could be totally different a decade from now. Watch this cislunar space.

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