With the International Space Station (ISS) speeding toward retirement in the coming years, NASA is looking toward what’s next for manned space operations. With goals spanning into the future that include a permanent presence on the Moon and the eventual manned exploration of Mars, NASA has set its sights on a new address — one that could benefit efforts to reach beyond our own backyard — lunar orbit.
According to NASA, the Lunar Gateway (officially, the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway) will offer the best possible bang for the Earth’s space exploration buck. It is to serve as a communications hub between lunar outposts and Earth, supporting lunar operations, advancing deep space science in a way that isn’t possible in low Earth orbit (where the ISS resides), and of course, preparing for future missions that extend deeper into space than our planet’s moon.
There’s just one real problem: the rocket NASA has been counting on to hoist large components of this new space station is meeting with repeated delays. NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) is set to be the most powerful rocket in history, once completed. It was, however, supposed to start flying last year, and setback after setback has extended that timeline to the point where some have begun to question whether this massive new rocket is worth continuing to develop at all. After all, there is no shortage of private space firms jockeying for opportunities to do NASA’s rocket-work.
Orion, the passenger capsule NASA envisions as the workhorse spacecraft in the era of the Lunar Gateway, is slated to take to the sky for its first mission (Exploration Mission-1) no later than midway through next year. However, it’s becoming increasingly apparent the SLS designed to carry Orion to the stars still won’t be ready in time to meet that deadline. With no other rocket on the planet powerful enough to support the massive weight associated with the EM-1 mission (which includes both the Orion spacecraft and a European Space Agency service module), it seems NASA might be stuck putting all of its major plans on hold due to the perpetually delayed SLS rocket.