NASA considering consolidating two Gateway launches into one


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Capitalism in space: NASA’s Artemis program is now considering using a single launch to place two different Gateway modules into space, rather than two separate launches.

Originally, NASA wanted to launch the PPE and HALO modules – together representing the absolute bare minimum needed to build a functional Gateway – on separate commercial rockets in 2022 and 2023, respectively. Now, according to NASA associate administrator Doug Loverro, the space agency has made the decision to launch both modules simultaneously on the same commercial rocket.

This decision was made in large part because it makes sense from a technical simplicity and overall efficiency standpoint but also because several commercial launch vehicles – either currently operational or soon to be – are set to debut extremely large payload fairings. As a combined payload, the Gateway PPE and HALO modules would be too big for just about any existing launch vehicle, while the tiny handful it might fit in lack the performance needed to send such a heavy payload to the Moon.

Falcon Heavy apparently has the performance needed, as NASA used the rocket and a new stretched fairing developed by SpaceX for military customers as a baseline to determine whether PPE and HALO could launch together. Given that NASA could have technically used any of the vehicles expected to have large payload fairings for that analysis, the explicit use and mention of Falcon Heavy rather strongly suggests that the SpaceX rocket is a front runner for the new combined launch contract. This isn’t exactly surprising, given that the massive rocket has already completed three successful launches and will attempt at least another four missions between now and 2023.

Note the rocket that is not mentioned: SLS.

My regular readers know my consistent opposition to Gateway. That opposition was based on its initial design, depending for launch and operations entirely on NASA’s SLS rocket, and requiring it to be built before we landed on the Moon. Based on the SLS program’s track record, I believed Gateway would become, like SLS, nothing more than a pork barrel project accomplishing nothing but funneling government payroll to congressional districts while failing to launch any missions into space.

If NASA however is shifting gears, and aiming to allow private enterprise to build, launch, and operate Gateway, for considerably less cost and time, than Gateway might actually be of some value, mostly because there is actually a chance it might really be built, within a few short years.

I remain skeptical however. I still have questions about this lunar station’s utility, at this time. We might be spending a lot of money for a space station that won’t get us anywhere. Or maybe if NASA rethinks it properly it could provide us the real opportunity to test construction of an interplanetary spaceship, in lunar orbit.

We will have to see how this plays out. This story does appear encouraging however.

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4 comments

  • Alan M

    From ignorance, I ask, is the SpaceX spaceship (under development) not large enough to contain the functionality of a lunar “gateway”. Just thinking that could save a lot of money and provide a lot of opportunity to learn about “real” spacecraft. I understand it may need to be custom or a modified version but more useful.

  • Alan M: Starship could for sure contain the entire Gateway station, once Starship is built and operational. The problem is that it is not built or operational. Once that happens we shall see a sea change in everything.

  • Richard M

    Honestly, it sure looks to me like Gateway is one more prong of an indirect strategy by Bridenstine to set SLS up for a killshot in the coming years.

    Everything announced about it so far makes use of New Space capabilities on newer procurement methods. This talk about using Falcon Heavy fits that mold.

    So what happens when everyone sees that the United States can assemble a space station a quarter million miles away in lunar orbit without using SLS? What if it can be mostly assembled and supplied using non-cost plus procurement methods?

    What happens if the same turns out to be true of the Artemis human lander system?

    What happens, I suspect, is that once Starship achieves orbit and the ability to refuel in orbit, the case for winding SLS starts to look considerably easier.

  • pzatchok

    I wonder if NASA could save space and effort by building both sections as one?

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