- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 4, 2019

For NASA, the moon is only a steppingstone on the way to Mars.

With plans to put astronauts on the Red Planet by the late 2030s, NASA has created the Lunar Gateway, a space station that will orbit the moon and help astronauts learn how to live in deep space.

“Why do we go back [to the moon]? We’re going to explore, we’re going to learn about our solar system,” said Marshall Smith, NASA’s director of human lunar exploration. “How we move around on Mars, we can do that on the moon, very similar.”

The gateway is intended to be a permanent docking area for astronauts on their way to the moon and eventually Mars, which will require at least a 1-year round trip.

NASA’s goal is to start sending humans to the moon by the end of 2024. Learning to use the moon’s resources and how to stay there is a part of the plan to travel deeper into space, Mr. Smith said.

“It allows us to have a testing ground that’s not years away or months away, but days,” he said. “If something goes wrong on Mars, you have to deal with it until you can come back. That could be up to a year and a half.”

The commercial space industry has partnered with NASA to make the Lunar Gateway a reality.

Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, a Virginia-based aerospace company, was selected to negotiate a contract with NASA to be the sole creator of the habitation module, the main place for astronauts to live and perform experiments on the Lunar Gateway. Maxar Technologies in Colorado was awarded a $375 million contract to create the power and propulsion element that will hold the gateway in orbit. It is set to launch by 2022.

NASA tapped five companies to research and produce fully functional prototypes of habitation and airlock modules in August 2016; the modules were tested in May. NASA decided to fast-track a contract with Northrop Grumman last month.

“It is the only company able to meet NASA’s timeline for launching the module by the end of 2023,” said NASA spokeswoman Rachel Kraft.

NASA originally did not plan on choosing one sole contractor, according to an article published on the space agency’s website in March. The agency had to change plans with 2024 approaching and pressure building from the presidential administration to meet that deadline, as outlined in a justification document NASA published on July 19.

The space agency provided little comment due to pending negotiations, and Northrop Grumman declined to comment while the contract is still in the works. Mr. Smith said partnering with the commercial space industry helps in the innovation for the Artemis Program, which aims to put a woman on the moon by 2024, and creates an atmosphere different from the Apollo missions.

“Apollo was done rapidly, but it was also very risky. We didn’t know what we didn’t know,” Mr. Smith said. “Back in the ‘60s, we didn’t have a space industry. It didn’t exist.”

Money is also an obstacle for Artemis. The White House asked for $1.6 billion to begin the process of accelerating the Artemis Program, but NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine recently estimated the cost to be $20 billion to $30 billion more to fund the program over the next five years.

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