NASA’s unnecessary $504 million lunar orbit project doesn’t help us get back to the Moon

NASA’s unnecessary $504 million lunar orbit project doesn’t help us get back to the Moon
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As part of the return to the moon program, NASA is planning to build a human-tended space station in lunar orbit dubbed the Lunar Orbiting Platform-Gateway (LOP-G.) The lunar space station would accommodate crews of four for 60 to 90 days. According to the space agency, the LOP-G crew “will also participate in a variety of deep-space exploration and commercial activities in the vicinity of the Moon, including possible missions to the lunar surface. NASA also wants to leverage the gateway for scientific investigations near and on the Moon.” 

The LOP-G started life as the Deep Space Gateway back in the middle of the Obama administration. NASA tried to sell the DSG as a laboratory to test technologies that would be useful for the Journey to Mars program that had been announced by then President Obama during his Kennedy Space Center speech on April 15, 2010. 

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The other thing that the Deep Space Gateway would do was to allow astronauts to control uncrewed rovers on the lunar surface in real time. It was likely this feature that caused a decided lack of enthusiasm in the Obama White House. The then president had specifically ruled out any missions to the moon.

 

However, the Deep Space Gateway got some traction when it was repurposed to serve as a base for the Asteroid Redirect Mission. The ARM’s goal was to divert an asteroid and move it to lunar orbit. A crew of astronauts would travel to the DSG and study the asteroid during a two-to-three-month mission. Later, the ARM morphed to grabbing a boulder from an asteroid rather than moving the asteroid itself. The ARM subsequently died from lack of interest. 

The Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, as the Deep Space Gateway is now called, will now serve as a way station for trips to the lunar surface and then, eventually, to Mars. The concept involves a crew of astronauts taking an Orion spacecraft, launched on top of a heavy-lift Space Launch System, to the LOP-G.

Astronauts would travel to the lunar surface in a reusable lunar lander that would be docked at the lunar orbiting space station. Later, the astronauts would return to the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway in the lunar lander, transfer to the Orion, and return to Earth.

The Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway would be expensive, costing $504.2 million in fiscal 2019 alone. Considering that a lunar orbiting space station was not necessary for men to go to the moon and back during the Apollo program, some thought might be given as to whether the LOP-G is crucial for returning to the moon. Any complex infrastructure that is in the critical path for humans returning to the moon has every potential to delay that event if costs begin to overrun and the schedule slips.

For instance, the Orion and the lunar lander could be launched from Earth separately, then rendezvous and dock in lunar orbit. The plan developed for the Bush-era Constellation program had that arrangement. A reusable lunar lander could be refueled from a depot on the lunar surface and left in a parking orbit between missions without the need for a big, complex space station.

It should be noted that if SpaceX develops the Big Falcon Rocket for deep-space travel, it will not need the LOP-G to go to the moon or anywhere else. It would top off fuel in Earth orbit before going directly to the moon, Mars, or any other destination.

NASA Administrator Jim BridenstineJames (Jim) Frederick BridenstineWhy Voyager 2's discoveries from interstellar space have scientists excited NASA planned expedition to orbit Pluto won't settle whether it's a planet NASA Administrator: 'I believe Pluto is a planet' MORE expressed support for the facility at a speech at a Space Transportation Association luncheon. However, he should convene a panel of experts to review the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway. The panel would determine whether it is needed in the early to mid-2020s when planned or whether it can be delayed or canceled altogether, freeing funds to go directly to the moon sooner rather than later. 

The new space agency chief was chosen because he represents a fresh perspective for the problems of space exploration. Figuring out whether the LOP-G is a white elephant or not would be part of bringing that point of view to bear.

Mark Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.”