NASA shoots for the moon as launchpad for future Mars missions

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Jun 18, 2017, 6:56 PM EDT (Updated)

If NASA ever wants humans to get to Mars, the space agency is looking to shoot for the moon.

The Jetsons-esque idea of a moon-orbiting space station where new technologies (especially those being developed for Mars) can be tested has been on NASA’s radar for years. Whatever details were floating around until now have just been vague. Revelations of more detailed plans for a lunar outpost, as well as a spacecraft that can shoot to the Red Planet and beyond, have finally been fueled by the urgency to figure out the initial payloads for this project if anyone is actually going to walk on Mars within the next few decades. Because if we mess up on a Mars mission, no one may live to tell about it.

Urgency about what is now being called the Deep Space Gateway is also flaring because as soon as 2021, Exploration Mission 2 (EM-2), the first Space Launch System flight to deploy elements of the future outpost, could be ready for takeoff. EM-2 will be the first flight of the SLS Block 1B upgrade. Its more powerful Exploration Upper Stage, the upper part of a rocket which continues to fly post-launch and ascent, increases its capacity for carrying cargo and astronauts by as much as 50 percent. Think a 40-kilowatt power and propulsion system.

The power boost also means that NASA will be able to fly an Orion spacecraft along with “co-manifested payloads” designed to fit in the adapter between the improved upper stage and the Orion service module. EM-3 will be loaded with an entire habitation module, and visions for EM-4 include a logistics module with a possible robotic arm. EM-6 will one-up even that by launching Deep Space Transport, a 41-ton spacecraft that will include necessary habitation and transportation systems for extended missions beyond cislunar space, meaning Mars.

Boeing's concept for the Deep Space Gateway.

“Essentially, in three SLS flights we can have the Deep Space Gateway assembled and ready to do operations in the vicinity of the,” said NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations Bill Gerstenmaier, though there could be an airlock added on an upcoming mission. He also noted that commercial moon flights would be needed to replenish cargo for support operations.

NASA is currently in discussions with scientists and engineers regarding which candidate technologies they believe are in sync with its exploration plans. For the habitat module, it is also collaborating with a number of companies, including Boeing, under the Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) program. Not that it has anything financially figured out yet—blame the wait for the nomination of a new administrator and the re-establishment of the National Space Council. There is also the dilemma as to whether the Deep Space Gateway takes priority over the race to Mars.

“Do we work on the Deep Space Transport or do we work on a lander?” Gerstenmaier questioned. “We’re going to have to have those discussions.” 

(via Space News)


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