The Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway: The Proper Next Step
After threatening to veto a $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill that will fund the federal government through September 30, 2018, President Trump signed it into law on Friday, March 23rd. NASA did remarkably well in this budget and received $20.7 billion, an increase of $1.1 billion instead of the approximate $500 million cut that the White House had originally proposed.
Now that the 2018 budget is officially out of the way, with only half a year remaining before the start of a new fiscal year, I like to turn our attention to the 2019 budget and, in particular, one specific aspect: the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (“LOP-G”). Originally named the Deep Space Gateway (a name that I always imagine had been inspired by Star Trek), the LOP-G is part of NASA’s long-term plan, nicknamed the Horizon Goal, that will eventually take humanity to Mars. While some in the space community have criticized the LOP-G (e.g., here and here) as a waste of time, effort, and money, I respectfully disagree and believe the LOP-G is a necessary and essential step in our quest for a crewed mission to successfully reach Mars.
In this post, I will provide some general background on LOP-G and explain the important role that the space station will play. I believe the LOP-G Program is critical to the success of the Horizon Goal since the space station will both improve the technologies needed for a crewed mission to reach Mars and produce the demonstrable progress that NASA needs during its annual budgetary review with Congress.
Back to the Moon
It’s hard to fathom that it’s been almost half a century since we, earthlings, were last on or near the Moon. The fact that our modern day smartphones are more powerful (though less crashproof) than the Apollo computers makes this oddity even more surprising. But, as a part of the “Proving Ground” phase of the Horizon Goal, the LOP-G could eventually herald NASA’s triumphant return to the lunar region.
Based on the International Space Station, the LOP-G is an orbital platform and gateway that will operate in cislunar space (the area around the Moon). The LOP-G will be placed in a near-rectilinear halo orbit around the Moon, enabling the station to be always visible to Earth-based ground control. NASA has requested approximately $500 million for the project in fiscal year 2019 and is projecting $2.2 billion more for fiscal years 2020 to 2023.
The primary objective of the LOP-G is to serve as an orbital research station that can assist scientists with the exploration of the Moon and its resources as well as provide experience in performing missions of long duration that are farther than low Earth orbit. The expertise developed from these activities will help us get a better understanding for the challenges and risks associated with deep space exploration. This will in turn enable researchers to both develop and improve the tools and technologies needed to ensure the success of future Mars-oriented missions.
Secondarily, the LOP-G will also serve as an outpost and staging area for the construction of the Deep Space Transport (“DST”), an interplanetary spacecraft designed for crewed missions to Mars. The LOP-G will serve as a “port of call” for the 41-ton DST, supplying the vehicle with the necessary provisions for its long-duration missions and acting as a final go/no-go mission checkpoint.
Components and Construction Timeline
The LOP-G is expected to include four components: the Power and Propulsion Element (“PPE”), the Cislunar Habitation Module (“CHE”), the Gateway Logistics Module (“GLM”), and the Gateway Airlock Module (“GAM”).
The PPE will be the power source and the engine unit to the LOP-G. It’s expected to be the first segment of the LOP-G and will be launched on a commercial vehicle in 2022. The CHE will come next and will be the living quarter for LOP-G’s crew and will include a docking component for spacecrafts visiting the orbital station. The final design for this module is currently under development through the NextSTEP-2 Program. The third segment will be the GLM, which will act as LOP-G’s laboratory wing. The GLM will include equipment such as a robotic arm that will be constructed by the Canadian Space Agency. Finally, the GAM will complete the LOP-G and will serve both as the docking station for the DST and the transition point for any extravehicular activities that might be performed by LOP-G’s crew.
While the PPE is expected to be commercially launch, the rest of the components will be delivered to the lunar orbit via various Space Launch System (“SLS”) missions in mid-to-late 2020s. PPE is unique in that as a propulsion unit, it can navigate itself into the proper orbit in cislunar space, whereas the remaining components will depend on SLS’s advanced upper stage for proper insertion.
Why We Should “Choose to Go to the Moon” Again
I believe that the success of LOP-G is a necessary and essential step for NASA to achieve the Horizon Goal. The LOP-G Program will both improve the technologies needed for a crewed mission to reach Mars and produce the demonstrable progress that NASA needs during its annual budgetary review with Congress.
An ancient proverb tells us that slow and steady wins the race. This proverb is as applicable to NASA’s Horizon Goal as it was to Neil Armstrong’s first step on the Moon. While Project Apollo took us to the Moon, it was Projects Mercury and Gemini that paved the way and developed the technologies needed to achieve this feat. The LOP-G Program is the modern day equivalent of Projects Mercury and Gemini, and will allow us to safely develop and test the technology needed to reach far-away planets; it’s much more feasible to conduct a rescue mission to the Moon, when the travel time is measured in days, rather than Mars, when the travel time is measured in months.
While some might point to SpaceX’s recent successes in quickly getting from Zero to One as reason for us to go directly to Mars, even Musk admitted that the development of Falcon Heavy was way more difficult than he ever anticipated. Details about how SpaceX solved its Dragon thruster issue during its second paid cargo run to the ISS in The Space Barons show that even SpaceX has benefited from paths previously paved by NASA. While nothing here should be interpreted to undermine SpaceX’s tremendous success in the past few years (which undoubtedly will change the paradigm in deep space exploration), it did not happen overnight. Space travel is hard and its risks can be catastrophic. Hence, development in this sector inevitably needs a more methodical approach, and the LOP-G Program allows NASA to be prudent.
Additionally, achievements in Outer Space are measured by small, but steady, incremental steps—even the Apollo missions reflected this reality. While Apollo 11 fulfilled President Kennedy’s goal of landing a man on the Moon, we must not forget that the mission followed the footsteps of Apollo 10, a dress rehearsal that brought us within nine nautical miles of the Lunar surface. After traveling some 220,820 nautical miles, the temptation to travel that last nine miles must have been great but the Apollo 10 astronauts followed their mission objectives and brought back the critical data needed to ensure Apollo 11’s historic, but safe, landing. LOP-G is one of these incremental steps, even if its literal final destination isn’t Mars.
Additionally, LOP-G’s success will be a manifestation of NASA’s progress in taking humanity back to Deep Space. With NASA operating on a year-by-year budget, the powers of a functioning achievement that can conjure memories of the golden era of American space exploration must not be underestimated. Such a symbol of success can galvanize public support and provide Congress with physical proof that NASA is not wasting its tax-supported funding. This will in turn help to protect NASA’s existing budget and advocate for future funding increases.
JFK’s Moon Speech is just as relevant today as it was more than half a century ago. It won’t be easy for LOP-G to achieve success, but in order for us to reach Mars, this return to the Moon is both essential and necessary and will enable ourselves to be properly grounded while we ambitiously reach farther skyward.
NASA FY 2019 President’s Budget Request: https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/atoms/files/fy19_nasa_budget_estimates.pdf
NASA FY 2018 President’s Budget Request: https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/atoms/files/fy_2018_budget_estimates.pdf
Omibus Spending Bill of 2018 (Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2018): http://docs.house.gov/billsthisweek/20180319/BILLS-115SAHR1625-RCP115-66.pdf
Lunar Orbital Gateway-Platform: https://www.nasa.gov/feature/nasa-s-lunar-outpost-will-extend-human-presence-in-deep-space
Power and Propulsion Element: https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/atoms/files/20171130-nac-heoc-ppe_final2.pdf_tagged.pdf