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NASA Could Have People Living on the Moon in 8 Years. And That’s Just the Beginning

17 minute read

The moon is a very patient place. It once was a very busy place. Early in its long history, a constant bombardment of space debris left it with great lava bleeds that formed its so-called seas and tattooed it with thousands of craters that endure today. The shooting eventually stopped and the moon fell quiet, and for billions of years it did more or less nothing at all, while the blue-white, watery world just next door bloomed and thrived and exploded with life.

And then, for a tiny blink of time, the moon hosted life too. Over the course of four years, from December 1968 to December 1972, nine crews of human beings orbited and walked on and even drove on the face of the ancient moon. It was remarkable and improbable and, for the 3.5 billion human beings back home, utterly thrilling. But as suddenly as the visits began, they stopped. The humans left and the quiet resumed.

All of that, however, may soon change. For the first time in five decades, the U.S.–along with private-industry and international partners–has committed itself to returning to the moon, and to doing it on a defined timeline. In December 2017, President Trump signed the first of three Space Policy Directives, putting manned lunar exploration back at the top of the NASA agenda. With that, plans that had been in development for a long time took on new urgency. And they are plans that are very different from the way Americans got to the moon the first time.

Rather than the so-called flags-and-footprints model of lunar exploration–with short-term crews in throwaway vehicles landing on the surface, working for a few days at most and heading straight home–the U.S. now hopes to establish a long-term presence on and around the moon. The centerpiece of the new system will be what NASA calls the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, a mouthful of a name that hides a relatively simple idea. Gateway, as NASA sees it, will be a sort of mini space station in lunar orbit.

Like the giant, 450-ton International Space Station, this one would be built with the help of more than a dozen other nations. Unlike the existing station, which consists of 15 habitable modules and a vast array of solar panels, Gateway will be comparatively small–a 75-ton assembly, consisting of just one or two habitable modules, each roughly the size of a school bus, plus a snap-on module for power and propulsion and two others that would serve as an air lock for spacewalking astronauts and a docking port for incoming vehicles.

Astronauts arriving in NASA’s in-development Orion spacecraft–similar to the old Apollo, but significantly bigger and more capable–could live onboard the Gateway for up to six weeks at a time as it orbited from a low of about 1,200 miles above the moon to a high of about 47,000 miles. From there they could make trips to and from the lunar surface in landing craft similar to the Apollo-era lunar module. Unlike the old landers, however, they’d be reusable and thus, over time, much more affordable.

“This is not about re-creating Apollo,” said newly arrived NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine in a recent interview with TIME. “People say we have to get to the moon before China or India does. Here’s the thing: we already did that. If we go back to the moon, we want to do it with a sustained architecture.”

Sustained architecture, of course, is expensive architecture, and NASA funding has been flat for years–less than $20 billion annually, or 0.5% of the national budget, compared with 4% during much of the Apollo era. And while private industry plays a role in space exploration in the 21st century that it didn’t play in the 20th, the cost for the initial pieces of the Gateway hardware will come out of NASA’s pocket.

Still according to current timelines, the first of that hardware will arrive in lunar orbit–shipped there by unmanned rockets–in 2022. Humans could test-fly the Orion on a loop around the far side of the moon and home again as early as 2023 and could take up residence on the Gateway that same year. Not long after that, those same crew members could make the final hop back down to the surface.

“We’re working to have astronauts on the moon by the mid-2020s–probably the 2025-to-2026 time frame,” says Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations.

If NASA hits that lunar target, it will be a big step toward its next one: Mars. The moon remains a rich object of scientific research all by itself, but it can also be a critical test bed for the systems that will be needed to homestead Mars: the rovers, habitats, power systems and more necessary for long-term settlements.

“The moon makes sense as a way to practice for Mars,” says John Logsdon, founder of the Space Policy Institute at the George Washington University. “Getting experience living off the planet when you’re only three days from home is a good idea before you head off to Mars, which is at least eight months away.”

Gateway could provide more than just know-how for Mars; it could also provide resources. The moon is a ready source for water, air and rocket fuel, thanks to ice deposited in its poles and dusted through its topsoil–or regolith. Astronauts could harvest the ice and ferry it up to the Gateway, where some of it could be stored as water and the H[subscript 2]O molecules in the remainder could be broken down into their constituent hydrogen and oxygen. Mars-bound astronauts could stop by and pick up supplies they need for their trip, saving the enormous cost of muscling those essentials off the Earth. A second habitation module could also be kept docked to Gateway, which the Mars crew could pick up on their way out to expand their living space for the long trip and drop off on their way back

But if going back to the moon is a good idea, not everyone agrees that Gateway is the right way. To critics, the program sounds like a jobs program and a money sink–the kind of thing that so often happens when a new Administration arrives and wants to put its stamp on space policy, dreaming up something new simply because it’s new.

“We’re making these decisions based on politics,” says former astronaut and Gateway skeptic Terry Virts. “We’ll build this thing, and then we’ll feel like we have to use it. The goal in the short term is to go to the moon and in the long term to go to Mars. We don’t need a Gateway to accomplish either of those things.”

What’s more, Gateway is an order of magnitude more complicated than the Apollo model, which involved just three key pieces: the Saturn V rocket, the Apollo orbiter and the lunar module, which flew down to and back from the surface. In recent decades, NASA has not been able to get even the basic stuff done in human deep-space exploration. The Orion spacecraft and the prosaically named Space Launch System (SLS)–the next-generation Saturn V– have been in more or less continuous development since 2004, and their predicted first launch dates have repeatedly slipped. Even when the new spacecraft and booster do go into service, NASA expects to launch them at a frequency of just one every other year. The Apollo and Saturn V, by contrast, made 10 manned flights in the 1968 to 1972 window.

With the kind of go-slow schedule, of the present-day space program, says Logsdon, “it will be a real stretch to think we can meet these Gateway target dates.”

NASA has heard all this before and insists that this time things really are different. “You can put your hand on the first Orion that’s ready to fly,” says Gerstenmaier. The SLS, he adds, “is almost ready. There’s physical hardware there.”

Hardware in a hanger, however, is not hardware on the pad–much less out at the moon. A great many hurdles will have to be overcome before that deep-space distance is covered.

Gateway was by no means dreamed up with the moon in mind. When former President Obama took office, he inherited an underfunded and behind-schedule return-to-the-moon program that former President George W. Bush initiated in 2004 and that was much more like the old Apollo program. Obama, who had shown little interest in space policy during his presidential run, scrapped the Bush program, including the development of Orion and the SLS. (The rocket was then named Ares V.) But getting crosswise with both Florida and Texas–the anchor states of the U.S. space community, which can mess with both a President’s legislative aspirations and reelection plans–is never a good idea, and Obama relented to congressional pressure to keep Orion and SLS going.

Donald Trump First Space Directive
President Trump during the signing of his first space directive, with moonwalker and former Senator Harrison Schmitt, at rightSaul Loeb—AFP/Getty Images

The moon, however would no longer be the goal. Instead, NASA would attempt to use robotic spacecraft to find a small asteroid, relocate it to high lunar orbit, build a mini space station nearby, and send astronauts out to bunk down in the station and make hops down to the asteroid to study it. That improbable idea–known as the Asteroid Redirect Mission–never passed the why? test, and by Obama’s second term, the White House was quietly walking away from it, instructing NASA to focus instead on getting astronauts to Mars by the 2030s. Gateway remained part of the new plan.

In 2017, Trump bumped Mars, and replaced it with the moon. Gateway, however, a program that was already in motion, abided by the laws of legislative physics and remained in motion. NASA and the White House insist that it fits comfortably into the new moon agenda, but that isn’t quite so simple a case to make. A Mars-bound spacecraft that stops off at the moon for gas and supplies still has more than 99% of its journey ahead of it. A moon-bound spacecraft that stops at Gateway has already completed as much as 99% of its trip.

To Logsdon, there’s a sort of ex post facto reasoning to keeping Gateway. It’s in the existing plan, so let’s make use of it, even if we don’t need it. “The question is, If Mars had not been the goal before, would you still have Gateway?” he asks.

NASA answers that question with an emphatic yes, arguing especially that Gateway opens up much more of the lunar surface than Apollo ever could. The Apollo spacecraft circled the moon in a tight, roughly equatorial path about 60 miles above the surface before the lunar module separated and headed down. Gateway will fly in what’s known in space-speak as a near rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO). In plain English that means a high, egg-shaped orbit that circles the moon roughly north to south.

The irregular shape and positioning give the orbit particular properties. Thanks to a sort of gravitational balance between the Earth and the moon at that point in space, it takes little more than a puff of fuel to adjust the orbit to nearly any angle. Simply decide where you want to land, orient your orbit to fly over that spot and take your landing vehicle down, including to the far side of the moon and the poles, which no Apollos visited.

“Gateway gives us access to more parts of the moon,” says Bridenstine. “In the Apollo era, all six landings took place in the equatorial area. Imagine you wanted to explore the Earth so you sent a lander to Minnesota. What is that going to tell you about sub-Saharan Africa.”

Former astronaut Ken Bowersox, chair of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Committee, argues that a jumping-off point as flexible as Gateway not only allows more-ambitious missions, but encourages them. “It’s like a base camp on a mountain,” he says. “When you build that, people are tempted to go higher, and they do go higher.”

Some of that higher climbing involves the development of new technologies. The light-touch rocket thrust needed to move about in the Gateway orbit means less reliance on the traditional blunderbuss of chemical engines, which consume a lot of fuel, add a lot of weight and cost a lot of money. Instead, NASA will accelerate development of what’s known as solar electric propulsion (SEP)–a system that uses solar power to electrically charge xenon gas, which then exits the ship not in a roar of fire, but in a fine, silent stream. The thrust that is produced is tiny, accelerating the ship steadily but gradually, meaning that it could take weeks, even months, to adjust the orbit and fly over the spot where you want to land. But preparing to explore a new part of the moon would take months anyway, so while the astronauts are training and the landers are being readied, the Gateway base camp could slowly swing into position.

This spring, NASA invited five companies, including big industry players Lockheed Martin and Boeing, to submit plans for the solar propulsion module of the Gateway, and hopes to award a contract by the end of the year. That module will be first piece to go aloft, in 2022, followed by the habitation module in 2023–which is a less-heavy design lift, thanks to the experience accumulated in building the 15-module space station. Of course, Gateway will require a lot more parts before it’s ready to fulfill its role as a lunar jumping-off point. In addition to the docking port and the spacewalk air lock that will be attached to the habitation module, it needs the robotic and manned landing craft, as well as the onboard systems to process and convert water brought up from the surface.

Some of this hardware is for now only vaporware, and even NASA admits as much. Breaking water into hydrogen and oxygen is easy enough, but if you want to do it affordably and in bulk, there are questions to be answered. For example, ice may be mixed in with the lunar soil, but no one knows in what concentrations.

“It could be as rare as gold, and then you have to move tons of regolith to get the water,” concedes Gerstenmaier.

Still, if Gateway has more physical pieces to put in place than Apollo did, it also has a big advantage Apollo didn’t: partners. NASA’s early spacecraft were bespoke machines. The agency would dream them up, sketch them out and then open the bidding for companies to build them to specifications. The modern-day space market is more of a bazaar, with private companies designing and building their own boosters and spacecraft and selling their services to government and corporate customers.

Even when something is invented to order like the SEP power module or the lunar landers, NASA only broadly describes what it needs the machines to do and then leaves it to private companies to do competitive design work and arrive at a competitive price. The company that gets the contract is then free, like any business, to use what it builds and market it to other customers as well. After the Apollo program ended, nobody was selling lunar modules to the next customer who wanted to fly to the moon, and that kept profit potential fixed.

“What’s different now,” Logsdon says, “is that you have private people with very deep pockets who are interested in the moon and space exploration, so that they, rather than just NASA, can be the customers for their own products.”

NASA’s non-private partners are important too. When President Reagan first proposed the International Space Station in 1984, it was called the Space Station Freedom and there was nothing international about it. Like all other NASA initiatives, it was a U.S. project alone. But the Freedom program drifted, partly for lack of adequate funding. In 1993, Vice President Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin initiated work on an agreement that eventually reinvented the space-station project as a consortium of many countries, all of which would contribute money, modules and other hardware. When the time came, they could also contribute astronauts who would fly with their own countries’ flags on the shoulders of their spacesuits.

That–especially the astronaut part–was a very sweet deal for space programs that had long been struggling in the shadow of the U.S. and Russia. Over time, 15 countries, including Canada, Japan and the members of the European Space Agency, joined the program, with the U.S. and Russia as senior partners.

With the station still flying and the consortium very much intact, the U.S. is inviting its partners to come along for the ride to the moon and Mars too, and the partners are signing up. At a series of meetings in 2017 in Tokyo, Montreal and Adelaide, Australia, the members of the consortium agreed to the basic timeline of the Gateway project, settled on the NRHO as its initial orbit, and reached at least preliminary accord on which countries would take on the design and construction of which components. Russia, for example, may provide the air-lock module; Japan may contribute an additional module that will assist in power, propulsion and communications and provide an air lock specifically for scientific experiments. Canada, which provided the robotic arms that proved to be so essential to outdoor work first on the space shuttles and now on the station, is open to building another one for the Gateway.

“Different countries want very salient and visible pieces of the Gateway,” says administrator Bridenstine. “It’s a good problem to have.”

Considerable obstacles remain, including NASA’s ongoing money pinch. Of its less than $20 billion annual budget, only half goes to manned exploration, and only half of that half can go to Gateway, with the rest supporting space-station operations. Such drip-drip funding is the leading reason for the slow development of the Orion and the SLS, and while the current Gateway timelines promise a somewhat faster pace, no one pretends there will be the gusher of financial backing that was necessary for the moon-sprint the U.S. managed in the 1960s.

NASA’s press releases, perhaps inadvertently, reflect the uncertainty, describing the things a Gateway component “would” do–instead of will–with launches that may happen “as early as” a given date, which is very different from President Kennedy’s target of getting to the moon no later than the end of the 1960s. Such conditional and aspirational planning, however, might be the best the modern space program can do.

“Hoping that we can get Apollo-like budgets for deep-space exploration is a false hope,” says Logsdon of the Space Policy Institute. “The question is whether we can get enough incremental funding to move faster than we are.”

Finally, there is the ongoing problem of the political riptides of Washington, which can tear even robustly funded programs apart. From the creation of NASA in 1958 to the last moon landing in 1972, there were four different Presidents–two from each party–and eight different Congresses, and while they often argued about the pace and the price tag of human space exploration, the larger, lunar goal remained fixed. A modern-day Washington that can barely agree on short-term budget extensions just to keep the government running is not a Washington with the vision to succeed in space.

But the moon remains patient; the planets remain patient. The most celebrated line in the celebrated speech Kennedy delivered in 1962, when he set his lunar deadline was, “We choose to go to the moon.” And the most powerful word in that line was choose. We chose then. We can choose again. It’s entirely up to us.

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com