Mankind is officially going back to the moon! With the signing of Space Directive 1 and the now proposed 2020 NASA budget, one thing is very clear; human presence will soon be established on the surface of the moon. There are a number of reasons why this is an exciting yet daunting task. It all begins with the creation of a lunar outpost called Gateway. Gateway will be a permanent command and service module that will orbit the moon.
The last American mission to the moon was completed in 1972 by Apollo 17. Since then, astronauts have traveled to ISS and back, but not far into deep space. ISS orbits the earth around 250 miles from the surface while the moon is 238,900 miles away. That means Gateway will be our first venture into sustaining human life in deep space. Not only will Gateway act as a home base for astronauts studying the moon, it will also provide scientists with a platform to look back at the Earth, observe the Sun, and have an unobstructed view into our universe.
The Planetary Society believes that habitation of Mars is what humans should be aiming for in the long run. This operation is expected to move mankind in that direction. For example, in order to understand how to exist on Mars, we first must learn how to survive in deep space. Scientists hope to gain insight into this through the creation of Gateway. There are a number of obstacles to overcome that will hopefully be resolved by the creation of Gateway. The delay in communication, lack or resupply, and a completely new physiological environment being just a few. Any advancements made by launching Gateway will be another step towards getting to Mars.
In order to launch Gateway, NASA is presented with the challenge of physically getting it off the ground. To do this they plan to build the largest rocket ever before built in human history. This rocket called Space Launch System (SLS) is intended to launch a more sustainable and partially reusable rocket, Orion, to the moon. Additionally, they hope to take only 5-6 trips from Earth in order to build the entire module. Gateway itself will utilize a solar propulsion module which will make the module self-sustaining.
If all goes according to plan, we may see a fully assembled Gateway orbiting the moon by 2026. That means human habitation of the deep space can begin in less than 7 years. The first launch of elements of Gateway are expected as early as 2022. In the meantime, NASA is asking American companies to study the best approaches to landing astronauts on the moon in a sustainable fashion.