NASA has determined to start out constructing the Lunar Gateway with the Falcon Heavy

In October 2024, NASA will send “the first woman and the next man” to the moon as part of the Artemis program. This will be the first crewed mission to the lunar surface and the first mission beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO) since the Apollo era ended in 1972. In addition, NASA plans to set up an infrastructure on and around the moon that enables this for “sustainable lunar exploration and development”.

A key aspect here is the Lunar Gateway, a revolving habitat in which astronauts can regularly travel to and from the lunar surface. After much deliberation, NASA recently announced that it has selected SpaceX to launch the gateway’s basic elements – the Power and Propulsion Element (PPE) and the Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO) – in May 2024 at the earliest.

NASA originally planned to deploy the gateway before sending astronauts back to the lunar surface (as part of the Artemis III mission). In this scenario, the crew would launch the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion spaceship from Earth and dock with the gateway in lunar orbit. The long-awaited return to the surface (and all subsequent surface missions) would be accomplished by means of a reusable lunar lander.

An illustration of the power and drive element of the gateway as well as the outpost for housing and logistics in orbit around the moon. Credits: NASA

Unfortunately, these plans had to be changed to accommodate the acceleration plan introduced by the Trump administration. When October 2024 was set as the deadline for Artemis III, NASA was forced to override the priority of the Lunar Gateway and consider other options. This consisted of hiring private contractors to develop a Human Landing System (HLS) that could be integrated into the Orion spacecraft (and later into the Gateway later).

At the same time, NASA was considering deploying the gateway independently from the early Artemis missions and using the SLS to deploy the PSA and HALO elements separately. Another option was to enlist the help of a commercial launch vendor to deploy the gateway, freeing NASA and SLS to focus on assembling the crewed Artemis missions.

According to a recently published announcement, NASA signed a $ 331.8 million contract with SpaceX to jointly launch the PSA and HALO elements back in May 2024. After these modules are integrated on Earth, they will be launched aboard a single Falcon Heavy rocket from launch in Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

As soon as the gateway is operational, the PSA element offers electricity (in 60 kilowatts), high-speed communication, position control and SEP functions (Solar-Electric Propulsion). In this way, the lunar orbit can be changed as needed, giving crews better access to the lunar surface than was ever possible with traditional missions.

ESA has signed a contract with Thales Alenia Space to build the ESPRIT module for Gateway, a planned space station in lunar orbit. Image credit: ESA

The HALO element serves as a docking hub and living / working area for crews visiting the gateway (often on the way to the lunar surface). It will also act as a command and control module, assisting scientific research, distributing energy, enabling communication with visiting vehicles and surface expeditions, and complimenting the Orion spacecraft’s life support systems.

While neither NASA nor the Biden administration have indicated whether they want to use Gateway for Artemis III again, the timing seems to suggest so much. Subject to any delays, the core of the gateway will be in place five months before Artemis III launches. With the addition of a lunar lander, the Artemis III crew will no longer be forced to bring an HLS (saving the overall bulk of the mission).

Over time, additional elements will be added, such as the European System of Refueling, Infrastructure and Telecommunications (ESPRIT) service module. This module consists of the Halo Lunar Communication System (HLCS) and the ESPRIT Refueling Module (ERM), which provide the gateway with additional capacity for xenon and hydrazine fuel, additional communication equipment and an airlock for science packages.

The HLCS will provide the communication for the ministation and will be integrated into HALO before the start in 2024. The ERM will start in 2027 and provide the pressurized fuel tanks, docking ports and a small living corridor with windows from ESPRIT. On January 7, ESA signed a contract with Franco-Italian space manufacturer Thales Alenia Space worth USD 362 million (EUR 296 million) to build ESPRIT.

Then there is the International Habitation Module (I-HAB), commissioned by Thales Alenia Space, which provides additional space for crews. This module is being developed by ESA in collaboration with NASA, JAXA and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), which will contribute the avionics and software, the life support system and robotics respectively, and will bring some of them to market by the time 2026.

There are also a number of proposed modules that are still under consideration. However, it is expected that all planned modules will be integrated into orbit around the moon by 2028. Once assembled, the gateway will measure about one sixth the size of the International Space Station (ISS) and will act as an intermediate station in cislunar space at the Lagrange point Earth-Moon L1.

In addition to being an integral part of the Artemis program, it will be a hub for NASA and its international and commercial partners to conduct unprecedented lunar exploration and research. The gateway will also play an important role in future Mars exploration, serving as a stopover for deep space transport, as well as crews and cargo destined for the Red Planet.

Further reading: NASA

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