A new era: Gateway, NASA's next lunar space station

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NASA leaves the ISS, along with the Americans, the rest of the partners are rushing the last years of the largest space station to date.

While Russia prefers to focus on low orbit, Western partners have focused on lunar orbit.

Gateway vs ISS scaled
Size comparison between the ISS and the Gateway. Source: NASA

We are in a new millennium, new ideas have emerged since we last went to the Moon 50 years ago. Among them, the idea of placing a space station in orbit around the Moon.

This a priori has great advantages, however, the project received strong criticism for its original conception. Rapidly developing SLS and Orion it was seen that it could not reach low lunar orbit. This lack of capacity forced the appearance of the Gateway in the scheme of returning to the Moon.

From its conception to the latest almost definitive plans, awaiting the final approval of the Japanese and European modules, the design has changed little.

original proposal
Image of the first ship similar to the current Gateway. The 2012 proposal included a ship in halo orbit around the Moon that would enable the exploration of lunar cis space. Source: NASA

But today we already have a image very clear of what this new station will look like, very different visually from the ISS. More similar to a train where modules and ships are attached instead of cars. Even so, a part of the station's verticality is preserved to allow the docking of visiting ships.

It is still not entirely clear what these will be, although we have confirmed at least three different ones. But there are many doubts about one of them in the project.

These are:

  • The capsule Orion, which would lead to astronauts (up to four) and some cargo to the station.
  • The Starship from SpaceX that would dock at the station while waiting for the astronauts to arrive on the Orion. At that time, they would approach her and they would descend to the lunar surface for a stay of up to two weeks.
  • The very unknown Dragon XL. Very little is known about this ship, to begin with visually keep very little relationship with their predecessors. Furthermore, its role is becoming more in questionor due to several factors, the first is the Starship. This is already used to take Gateway astronauts to the lunar surface. Additionally, you should be able to throw a lot more load that this other ship to a lower cost and at the same time simplify the scheme for returning to the Moon. Subsequently, it must be taken into account that this ship is new, the theoretical basis, the Dragon and Dragon V2 capsules a priori bear little relation to it. This usually causes delays and cost overruns that NASA cannot afford in time or money.
Dragon XL scaled
One of the few images, all digital animations, available of the Dragon XL. Source NASA/SpaceX

Why Get Away?

When the project was presented within the framework of the Artemis missions it was the first time that this comment became popular, although it already had detractors before this.

Due to the ease of changing gateway to get away The term resonated deeply. The opposition, however, has been merely popular. Within NASA, and its associated agencies, there have never been any quarrels. It was understood from the beginning that the access route to this would be the SLS. This would launch the Orion, and because of this some intermediate element where to transfer from the small and uncomfortable Orion to the lander. Furthermore, due to the limited nature of this module, it would be ideal for astronauts who were not going to land on the Moon to be able to work somewhere else.

It is still one of the most distant that human beings have ever visited. There is a lot science what to do in the environment mole. To begin with the most obvious of measure radiation dose. If we want to go to Mars we must be able survive to the journey. But there is more, just like on the ISS, you have to learn to live off Earth. And the environment of the Gateway is very different from that of the ground station. The dangerous clouds of meteorites that hit the Earth's orbit more or less frequently would barely exist on the Moon. Or at least we think so, Experimentation can give us unpleasant surprises.

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Source: NASA

The legacy of the International Space Station will be as great as it is in size, maybe more. And the legacy casts a long shadow over those who follow it.

It is clear that it will take us a few decades to see a similar project, and that if it is approached it will be in a radically different way. We live in a glorious era of space exploration and that there are several space stations under construction at the same time proves it.

But the Gateway demonstrates more things. When the United States says that it is going to return to the Moon to stay, one has doubts. And it's normal, last century we were sold the idea that it would go to Mars and everywhere. We were sold the idea that there would be flying cars and other such science fiction elements. The future is rarely as we conceive it, but we face it anyway.

Gateway wants to bring that future closer, the proposals to explore further with this space station are viable, but unrealizable. Simply put, NASA, not even with other space agencies such as the European, Japanese or Canadian, can afford it. But returning to the Moon and staying there will be much easier once this station is in lunar orbit. We can simply go whenever we want. There will always be a place to reach, even if it is thousands of kilometers above the surface of the Moon.

Martin Morala Andres