NASA has chosen its first commercial partner for a proposed space station, known as the Lunar Gateway, to be built near the Moon. On Thursday, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said Maxar Technologies would build the first component of the Gateway—the power and propulsion element. Like the name suggests, it will provide electricity to the Gateway and help move it around.
“This time when we go to the Moon, we’re actually going to stay,” Bridenstine said in making the announcement. He has characterized the Gateway, which will be positioned in a high, elliptical orbit balanced between the Earth and Moon’s gravity, as a reusable “Command Module.” Under NASA’s current plans to land humans on the Moon by 2024, this is where astronauts will launch to from Earth before climbing aboard pre-positioned landers to take them down to the lunar surface.
Despite the fanfare Thursday—Bridenstine provided an hour-long overview of NASA’s ambitious Moon plans at the Florida Institute of Technology for a relatively simple contract award—the announcement represents a continuation of a Lunar Gateway plan that was initiated under the Obama administration. The Obama space plan involved using the Gateway as a stepping stone toward Mars, but now the Trump administration is pivoting toward the lunar surface.
There has been a somewhat heated debate in the aerospace community about whether such a Gateway, which adds to the delta-v energy needed to reach the lunar surface, helps or hinders NASA’s efforts to build a sustainable deep-space exploration program. Thursday’s announcement left no doubts about the project’s embrace by the White House, meaning the Gateway concept has successfully survived a transition from one president to another.
Gateway could grow
The contract announced Thursday is worth a maximum of $375 million. Intriguingly, Maxar said Blue Origin and Draper will join the team in designing, building, and operating the spacecraft. Such a partnership raises the possibility that the power and propulsion element, which will weigh about 5 tons fully fueled, could be launched on Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket.
During a teleconference with media, Maxar’s Mike Gold said the company would choose a commercial rocket for the power and propulsion element launch in the next 12 to 18 months. Most likely, New Glenn is the favored launch vehicle, however, Maxar is protecting itself in case that rocket is not ready to fly in 2022 when NASA wants this hardware in space. (At present, Blue Origin is working toward a 2021 launch date of the powerful rocket, but large rocket projects often slip to the right).
The Gateway is a unique piece of hardware for NASA in that it will form the cornerstone of its first deep-space outpost. The station will use solar electric propulsion to maintain its orbit and have the ability to maneuver into other orbits around the Moon. Before humans visit the Gateway in 2024, the space agency plans to add a small “habitat” module.
Over the course of the 2020s, NASA may expand the Gateway with other modules, including those provided by international partners. Officials said the electricity from the power and propulsion element’s solar panels would be more than enough to accommodate Gateway expansion.