NASA’s Next Stop: A Space Station Orbiting The Moon

By Korey Haynes | March 13, 2018 3:15 pm

An artist’s concept of a future orbital moon station. (Credit: Boeing)

The International Space Station is entering its twilight years. As such, NASA is making plans for the space station of the future — one that would orbit the moon.

This new lunar outpost will be smaller and more remote than the ISS — orbing beyond Earth’s protective magnetic field. And the station’s goal would be to serve as a transit hub for deep space missions and exploration past low-Earth orbit, while continuing all the science that can be done in zero gravity. It would also be within easy reach of the lunar surface.

NASA recently hosted a workshop in Denver to brainstorm projects and ideas for this future station, called the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway. Mostly, NASA wanted to know what research and missions the space community wants to pursue, and what this potential Gateway station would need in order to accommodate them—you know, power, space, and communications abilities. The list of participants included not just lunar scientists, but researchers in heliophysics and astrophysics, as well as Earth and life science.

At the workshop, some scientists emphasized the importance of sampling missions that could collect rocks from the lunar surface as well as asteroids. They’d also like to use Gateway to study particles from the wilds of the solar system beyond Earth’s Van Allen radiation belts, which divert most high-energy particles away from low-Earth orbiting satellites, including the ISS.

Having infrastructure to collect, store, and perhaps analyze these samples will be an important feature of the new station. “If you only have to get to Gateway, that’s a lot easier than returning samples all the way to Earth,” says Ben Bussey, chief exploration scientist of the Advanced Exploration Systems Division at NASA, and one of the organizers of the Gateway conference.

The community of researchers using CubeSats — tiny satellites smaller than a loaf of bread — also sees value in using the station. CubeSats are often launched from the ISS and are currently limited to low-Earth orbit, but NASA’s already making plans to launch a select group of tiny spacecraft on future lunar missions. And Gateway could serve as a vital communications relay, helping ease the back-and-forth of information from far-off projects.

Speedy Lunar Delivery

And Gateway could even prove to be important for delivering or servicing remote observatories like the yet-to-be-launched James Webb Space Telescope. The Space Shuttle provided services for its predecessor, Hubble, but Webb will orbit much farther out.

That’s one of the reasons Gateway will also almost certainly sport a robotic arm to help maneuver instruments and items outside the station, similar to the one currently on ISS.

The first-round of construction for the Gateway project is tied to the first launches of NASA’s new Orion crew capsule on top of the long-awaited Space Launch System rocket, or SLS, which will push cargo and crew beyond low-Earth orbit and toward the moon and beyond.

The first module to lift off would be a power and propulsion system, targeted for 2022. A pressurized habitation section would follow in 2023, at which point astronauts could visit, traveling there and back in Orion, with stays up to a month or two.

The new station won’t require continuous human occupancy, unlike the ISS, whose long-duration missions have supported individual astronauts for over a year in space, and which hasn’t been empty of human visitors since 2000. Gateway’s minimum crew is set to four, which is the capacity of Orion. So, no space traveler has to draw the short straw and stay in a cramped capsule while her friends float in the relative luxury of a space station.

Eventually, NASA wants to give Gateway an airlock and an additional logistics module, which could handle anything from cargo resupply to scientific research. It would be general-use space for anything that requires a pressurized environment.


And while NASA is spearheading the charge, Gateway could end up as multinational as the ISS. The Russian, European, Canadian, and Japanese space agencies are all partners of interest. Though no one, including NASA, is 100 percent committed to building this station at the moment.

Moon Base, Anyone?

Yet with newfound focus on a return to the moon, the proximity could ease the way for future crewed explorations on the surface. And Gateway’s distance from Earth, and the full-disk view of our home planet that goes with it, will allow Earth scientists a view they rarely get of our home planet: that of an outsider. This perspective is hugely valuable to the teams currently trying to understand what a habitable exoplanet might look like from afar. Right now, we only know of one habitable planet (ours), and we view it in a very different way (much closer) than we view any other contenders.

But most exciting for NASA is the purpose expressly in the project’s name: Gateway. It’s much easier to support missions to Mars and other deep space destinations if they have a base beyond low-Earth orbit. Gateway provides an easier waystation for sample return missions from the moon or Mars, with or without human crews.

And, at the very least, Gateway allows space agencies and companies to practice launching and returning cargo and crews from greater distances than are currently possible, with only ISS and other Earth-bound platforms for target practice.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: space exploration
  • Uncle Al

    NASA’s new Orion crew capsule” “long-awaited Space Launch System rocket,” Stillborn and obsolete. SpaceX successfully orbited a Tesla Roadster into the asteroid belt.

    NASA launches minorities, Dreamers, feminists, Snowflakes, Social Justice Warriors, illegal immigrants, sexually amorphous pioneers, Black Lives that Matter, La Raza, Bioethicists, activists, counselors…. SpaceX launches Historic European-derived patriarchal oppressors, Asian overachievers, and Jews. I cannot imagine any undesirable outcome.

    • Mike Richardson

      Wow, just wow. I didn’t think so much prejudice could be encompassed in so few words. How very efficient of you.

      • OWilson

        NASA has spent $600,000,000,000.00 to put men on the moon, and bring back some worthless moon dust!

        Privateer Columbus brought back Corn, Potatoes, Tomatoes, Bell peppers, Chili peppers, Vanilla, Tobacco, Beans, Pumpkins, Cassava root, Avocados, Peanuts, Pecans, Cashews, Pineapple, Blueberries, Sunflowers, Petunias, Black-eyed susan, Dahlias, Marigold, Quinine, Wild rice, Cocoa (chocolate), Gourds, Squash, spices, and enough gold to finance his 4 voyages!

        And they call him crazy!

        • Mike Richardson

          I think the natives he enslaved and exposed to European diseases might, but I’m sure you don’t.

          • OWilson

            The problem is they are celebrating in his place, in the progressive Swamps, your “Indigenous Peoples”, who actually did routinely enslave, rape loot, torture, scalp and even ate their enemies.

            Not to mention poor undocumented immigrant from the Mayflower who came in peace, seeking only a better life for their family, where there was certainly room for all! :)

          • Mike Richardson

            Thanks for proving my point. Generalizations, stereotypes, and prejudice — the meat and potatoes of your worldview. Talk to you later, Archie Bunker. 😉

          • OWilson

            Alway glad to be of help! :)

          • Uncle Al

            Small bunches of Spanish psychotic felons with their bloodletting god conquered 30 million native inbred genetic throwbacks with their bloodletting gods.

            There forever exists forever a singular choice in life: You can run at flank speed with your few remaining possessions spilling from your arms, or you can shoot back. Cortez through Trump, if you do not stand fast and shoot back, you die.

            Think of it as evolution in action. Evolution is not about who is right, evolution is about who is left.

        • Uncle Al

          Columbus was crewed with Spanish Inquisition prisoners, thus requiring two sets of dishes. Columbus, through Freemasonry, had preserved Greek and heathen knowledge that the world was round and distances measured. By Vatican decree, no Catholic may be a Freemason.

          In his youth he docked in Bristol, England (United Grand Lodge of England, freemasonry) and Iceland (Vikings, and North America). Yeah, sure – he was winging it with devout idiots Ferdinand and Isabella.

      • Uncle Al

        Social Justice versus demonstrated competence – where is prejudice in that? Budget NASA a few $million for pre-flight trophies that flip open to safety harness cutters..

        • Mike Richardson

          You know, I would have been on board with a criticism of NASA based on it’s lack of direction; a natural result of the changing priorities of different administrations, and fickle funding from Congress. SpaceX, led by a visionary entrepreneur with deep pockets and a proven track record of resultsresults, does not have that same handicap. But scapegoating minorities and folks you disagree with politically is ridiculous, and certainly doesn’t provide any realistic prospect for making NASA better. Allowing the agency to independently set long-term goals, and providing a steady revenue to make those goals attainable, would be a good way to achieve that result.

          • OWilson

            There is currently no one at NASA with the vision to set useful long term goals.

            The result is that we rely on those Russian “killers and murderers” to agree to take our astronauts to the International Space Station. :)

            Their planning is exemplified in the Hollywood movie writers schtik of throwing anything against the wall to see what might stick!

            “NASA recently hosted a workshop in Denver to brainstorm projects and ideas for this future station”

            Of course ALL minorities, women, gays, bi, tri, and especially muslims must be invited.

            Preparing the politically correct invitee list, and host location, is about as big a project as they can handle, along with Muslim outreach, Global Warming and of course, those delicate negotiations with the Russian “killers and murderers”. :)

          • Mike Richardson

            I’m sure you could tell them that your brand of bigotry and exclusion would be the best way to ensure innovative thinking. If only they’d listen just to cranky old conservative men.

          • OWilson

            Meritorious, Mikey please!

            I don’t care what my surgeons colour is, or what talisman he has hanging from his automobile’s rear view mirror! :)

          • Mike Richardson

            Then why the focus on “ALL minorities, women, gays, bi, tri [what does that even mean?] and especially Muslims,” rather than stating you were concerned about the best and brightest being invited? Or do you mean to imply that such a diverse group couldn’t include the best and brightest? NASA certainly benefited from the work of women and minorities performing the important work of calculations in the early years.

          • OWilson

            The subject was NASA future, and lack of direction.

            Only a socialist government employee like you would fail to see that a President who charges his new NASA Director, as follows, IS the problem.

            “When I became the NASA administrator, (President Obama) charged me with three things,” Bolden said in the inter, One, he wanted me to help re-inspire children to want to get into science and math; he wanted me to expand our international relationships; and third, and perhaps FOREMOST, he wanted me to find a way to REACH OUT TO THE MUSLIM WORLD and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to HELP THEM FEEL GOOD about their historic contribution to science, math and engineering.”

            Religion has NO place in science!

          • Mike Richardson

            While I actually agree that prioritizing outreach to a specific religious group is ridiculous, especially in light of EEOC mandates that cover religious discrimination and workplace representation, your arguments against

          • Mike Richardson

            While I actually agree with the premise that prioritizing outreach to specific religious groups is ridiculous, particularly with the EEOC overseeing anti-discrimination and fair hiring practices of all federal agencies, your statements regarding educational and climate monitoring programs are equally ridiculous.

            Childhood education has “no place” in NASA? From where do you think the next generation of engineers, astronomers, and astronauts will come? Do you think they emerge from pods, fully grown, educated, motivated, and ready to science? NASA has very good reasons for promoting childhood education, from self-interest in keeping the agency staffed, to the rather reasonable expectation that knowledge obtained by NASA should be shared with the taxpayers that fund it, and their children.

            “Global Warming” and “weather forecasting” also are reasonable priorities for NASA. It is, after all, charged with the study of planets and their climates. As I’m sure you realize, Earth is a planet with a climate (and biosphere), and rather important to humanity due to the fact that, for the present, 100 percent of us live here. But I can understand why you would oppose gathering more information about the climate, as this information increasingly contradicts your own stated views on the subject.

      • lemonhead

        What’s sad is that one of the great minds of the 20th century, Alan Turing, was lost far too soon due to small minds such as Uncle Al.

        Another great computer scientist of the 20th century, von Neumann, suggested that space exploration (and indeed, exploitation) would likely be most efficiently carried out by small self-replicating machines (von Neumann machines) than by humans. If ‘humans’ are to become space-faring, then they will be heavily augmented both genetically and cybernetically and they won’t bear any resemblance to Uncle Al or anyone else currently living, for that matter.

    • lemonhead

      ‘SpaceX successfully orbited a Tesla Roadster into the asteroid belt.’
      NASA doesn’t have any product or shares to sell so they don’t need to do any clever publicity stunts. The Saturn V had almost double the payload capacity of the Falcon Heavy, btw.

  • Andrew Worth

    If Gateway gets off the ground it’ll qualify as NASA’s most pointless waste of money yet – and that’s saying a lot.

  • StanChaz

    Can we please send Trump? Please, please, please.
    He wants a “Space-force” akin to the Airforce, this while kids are being slaughtered by gunmen in their own schools.
    Or better yet, send him to Mars where he can build a Trump Mars, financed by Russian oligarchs…

    • addyditwit

      The Martians would never accept him “Make Mars mad Again”


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