NASA's vision of missions to Mars is filled with baby steps, and expects to get a lot of help from private companies.
One of the more significant steps will be the construction of an orbiting lunar base, and NASA last week said its looking to award the first contract for that base to one of five companies as early as 2019.
Speaking at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado, NASA's William Gerstenmaier, an associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, told Bloomberg news an updated timeline NASA hopes to get what was previously called the Deep Space Gateway up and running.
Now referred to as the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, the contract for the first part of the gateway, a power and propulsion element, will be awarded in early 2019 to either Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK, Sierra Nevada Corp. or Space Systems/Loral. Those five are finishing four-month studies on how to best build it.
The plan is to eventually use NASA's Space Launch System and Orion module, but also commercial launch partners to transport the parts of the gateway to lunar orbit as early as 2022, Gerstenmaier said.
In February when NASA's budget details were revealed, Gerstenmaier said, "The Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway will give us a strategic presence in cislunar space. It will drive our activity with commercial and international partners and help us explore the moon and its resources. We will ultimately translate that experience toward human missions to Mars."
The outpost is not meant for continuous human presence, but will have the power element as well as the eventual addition of a habitation space, capable of supporting four astronauts for 30 to 60 days.
The gateway is to act as a way station for eventual missions to other destinations, such as Mars or the moon's surface.
The five companies vying to build the power element under NASA's Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships, or NextSTEP, are looking to design it so that the gateway can use solar electric propulsion to maintain its position around the moon and adjust its lunar orbit. The power element will also need to provide an array of communication capability including space-to-Earth, space-to-moon, spacecraft-to-spacecraft and be able to talk to spacewalkers.
The communication plan is to include laser data transfer, as opposed to radio, which allows for faster and larger data package delivery.
After the power comes the habitation space in 2023, which will once again allow for competition from the NextSTEP partnerships. Other additions will be an airlock to allow for spacewalks and a logistics module to allow for cargo resupply.
The plan then is to have the lunar platform orbiting the moon by 2025 and allow for the eventual plan for humans to return to the moon's surface as well as explore potential of the moon's resources to help supply elements that could be turned into propellant for deep-space missions.
The Space Launch System aims to be up and running with the planned launch of the unmanned Exploration Mission-1 in late 2019 and manned mission in 2023.