Manned space missions have been confined to low-Earth orbit for decades, but NASA is looking to change that. After speaking in general terms about a return to the moon and missions to Mars, the agency has released a timeline of objectives to get us there. It starts with expanding commercial launch capabilities, continues on to a moon base, and finally end with crewed trips to Mars. Don’t expect Elon Musk levels of overconfidence, though.
It all starts with changes to the way NASA and everyone else gets into space. The Commercial Crew Program is the first step — SpaceX and Boeing are expected to begin carrying astronauts to the International Space Station in the next year or two. This is the first step in transitioning to a non-NASA operating model for all or part of the ISS by roughly 2025. NASA also sees a role for itself in facilitating the development of more public-private missions in orbit of Earth.
NASA does not plan to get out of the space station game. The most detailed part of the newly released timeline covers NASA’s return to the moon. It has been almost 50 years since people walked on the moon, and we’ve only explored six sites over the course of 16 days. The new lunar explorations will be much different. NASA plans to start building a moon base by 2023.
The base is currently called “The Gateway” to signify its status as a gateway to the rest of the solar system. It will consist of four parts: power and propulsion, habitation and utility, logistics and robot arm, and an airlock. The power and propulsion module is already under construction in facilities across the US. That will launch in 2022, and the habitation module will head up a year later. NASA plans to lock the last two modules into place in 2024. Construction and servicing of The Gateway will use a combination of private vehicles and the NASA Space Launch System (SLS).
At first, The Gateway will house a crew of four for 30-day orbital missions only. NASA will eventually equip the base with a lander that can descend to the lunar surface. Allowing astronauts to make regular trips before returning to The Gateway. This facility will also serve as a jumping-off point for NASA’s next target: Mars.
There’s less detail on NASA’s plans for the red planet. It still plans to get a new Mars rover launched in 2020, and that will inform some of the agency’s decisions in the future. In general, NASA hopes to have a robotic return mission several years later before moving on to human-crewed missions. That is still planned for the 2030s. It’s a far cry from Elon Musk’s 2028 Mars colony, but probably also much more realistic.
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