Gateway Gets Good Reviews from NAC Committees

Gateway Gets Good Reviews from NAC Committees

Members of two NASA Advisory Council (NAC) committees representing the science and human exploration communities seem upbeat about the potential of NASA’s concept for a lunar orbiting Gateway. At a joint meeting today, they heard from engineers about the design and scientists about how it can enable “transformative” lunar science. They will report their findings and recommendations to the full NAC when it meets tomorrow and Thursday, but their discussions today conveyed strong support.

The Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) committee heard some details about the Gateway at its meeting yesterday, but this was the Science Committee’s first look.

Jason Crusan, NASA’s director of advanced exploration systems, expanded on the presentations to the HEO committee yesterday and offered a more detailed illustration of the design concept, showing potential contributions from international partners (although he mentioned that one of the modules is not correctly color coded).

Source: NASA

NASA is currently engaging mostly with its International Space Station (ISS) partners — Canada, Europe, Japan and Russia — but is open to others.  Crusan said Canada is primarily interested in robotics; Japan and Europe in the habitation module and associated life support systems as well as science and utilization; and Russia in all of that, but especially the airlock and its potential applicability to lunar surface missions.

It is just a concept at this stage, however.  Crusan joked that what is actually built probably will look nothing like the illustration in his slide.  NASA is working with six companies to get their ideas on how to design the habitat.  NASA does not plan to downselect to one of the designs.  Instead NASA will use it all as input to a final configuration.

Source: NASA

He and Bill Gerstenmaier, head of NASA’s human spaceflight program, stressed that the Gateway is much smaller than ISS, only about 10 percent of its pressurized volume, and is not intended to be permanently occupied.  They heralded its ability to change orbits around the Moon using its high power solar electric propulsion system.  That will enable it to support a wide variety of missions, including activities at many locations on the surface.  The initial plan is to use a halo orbit that favors the lunar south pole with its ice deposits.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) just announced last week definitive evidence of water ice at the lunar poles. The south pole has greater quantities, though extracting it from the shadows of craters where temperatures are no higher than -250 degrees Fahrenheit will be an extreme challenge.

The message today was that wherever scientists and resource hunters want to go, the Gateway can support them.

The Gateway is not only for lunar missions.  NASA’s long term exploration goal is humans on Mars and conceptually the Gateway could be a transfer point for astronauts going to or from there as well.  That will be some years in the future, but Crusan said all parts of the Gateway will have a 15-year design life and the strategy, as for ISS, is for on-orbit life extension so it could function long after that.

As discussed at yesterday’s HEO committee meeting, the Gateway’s first component, the Power and Propulsion Element (PPE), is being procured through a public-private partnership.  It will be launched in 2022 and whatever company builds it will retain ownership and operate it for one year for commercial purposes.  Ownership and operation will transfer to NASA in 2023.  Vice President Mike Pence asserted last week that humans will be aboard the Gateway no later than 2024.  Gerstenmaier appears confident about meeting that schedule.

The Gateway is only part of NASA’s lunar campaign, which envisions commercial and international partners throughout.  It is planning a series of small, mid-sized and large robotic landers, many built as public-private partnerships.  NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) is managing that effort for the agency.

Historically. the NASA science and human exploration communities have often clashed, but SMD Associate Administrator Thomas Zurbuchen warned at the joint meeting today that any strategy to “pit one against the other is to the detriment of the agency.” For his part, he is excited about working with his Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD) colleagues and they work together “like hand in glove.”

The committees were briefed by NASA and academic scientists, including SMD’s Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Steve Clarke, on the agency’s lunar science plans, the results of a recent workshop where the science community provided input on what “landed” science would be valuable and what facilities are needed to support it, and on specific geological and astrophysical research that could benefit from the Gateway.

Jack Burns, Director of the Network for Exploration and Space Science at the University of Colorado, Boulder, gave a rousing presentation about the “transformative lunar science” that awaits.  “We are not going back to the Moon,” he exclaimed, “we are going forward to the Moon.”  Lunar science is “bold, interesting, impacting,” and the technologies that will be used and the “places we can go are revolutionary.” The results will be “Decadal-quality” science, he insisted.

That is a reference to the Decadal Surveys produced by expert committees under the aegis of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine every 10 years (a decade) for each of NASA’s science disciplines:  astrophysics, planetary science, heliophysics, Earth science, and biological and physical sciences in space.  They are considered the “bibles” for prioritizing the key science questions and missions to answer them.

Ensuring that NASA’s plans for lunar science are vetted as part of Decadal Surveys was repeatedly mentioned by committee members. NAC chairman Lester Lyles, who was also at the meeting, however, asked whether the Decadal process creates barriers to getting the best science.  He is a member of the National Space Council’s Users’ Advisory Group and he said the Space Council is looking at internal policies that may create such barriers for science or the balance between science and exploration.  Scientists at the meeting defended the community-driven Decadal process for setting science priorities. Lyles assured them it was not a pejorative question and it was good to get affirmation that it is working well.

The overall atmosphere of the meeting was supportive of the Gateway.  Meenakshi (“Mini”) Wadhwa, Director of the Center for Meteorite Studies at Arizona State University and acting chair of the Science Committee, summed it up by saying the two committees have an opportunity to “overcome misperceptions” among their colleagues about the Gateway through their findings and recommendations to NAC.

NAC members will hear them at their meeting tomorrow and Thursday.  NAC advises the NASA Administrator through its findings and recommendations.  The Administrator responds in writing to NAC’s recommendations, but is not required to follow them.



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