Editor’s note: NASA’s proposed Deep Space Gateway has been in the news recently due to a joint statement of support for the project from US and Russian officials. However, as former space shuttle pilot and International Space Station commander Terry Virts writes in an op-ed below, there is little agreement in US space policy circles about the need for the gateway.
Consider the following proposal for a human spaceflight program. First, a multinational consortium comes together to build a space station, with each nation responsible for specific pieces of the station or capabilities, such as module or robotic arm. Second, the station relies on existing rockets and vehicles to launch cargo and crew, effectively providing these programs a raison d’etre for many years to come. Third, the consortium develops an “assembly sequence” of missions to put the station’s modules together in orbit, one by one. Then, once the space station is built, astronauts use it to perform experiments and prepare for eventual missions deeper into the Solar System.
Does this program sound familiar? You may think this is the International Space Station—but it is not. Rather, this is NASA’s recent proposal for something called “Deep Space Gateway.” But there are several key differences between this new program and the ISS. Most notably, the gateway would be built in orbit around the Moon. Also, it will not use the Space Shuttle for assembly but instead rely on NASA’s Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft, vehicles that should be operational by the mid-2020s.
The people at NASA who have developed the gateway concept are some of the brightest people that I know, and they have tried as best they can to shepherd our human spaceflight program through the past decade, even as it lacked a concrete goal or mission. Nevertheless, America deserves a thoughtful and critical examination of this plan. For if we choose to pursue it, America and its international partners will be committing to this pathway for the next few decades of human spaceflight.
What’s the goal?
So let’s consider some key questions about the Deep Space Gateway plan. Any project should have a clear goal. It really doesn’t matter if you are building a fast food restaurant chain, negotiating peace in the Middle East, or designing a human spaceflight program—having a focused goal is essential.
In the case of this gateway, there is no concrete human spaceflight goal. Instead, there is simply a fuzzy promise of having an “ecosystem” of capability in orbit around the Moon that will eventually enable humans to go to Mars. It is the “if you build it, they will come” strategy, which may have worked well enough for Kevin Costner but is highly suspect when it comes to space.
In the 1960s, NASA made it to the Moon by flying increasingly complex missions, each designed to build on the previous one, developing and demonstrating the technologies eventually needed for a Moon landing. It was Mercury, then Gemini, and finally Apollo that got us to the Moon, not just Apollo.
The International Space Station has served as a type of project “Mercury” for extended human missions by proving that long-duration spaceflight is possible. As the follow-on to ISS, the Deep Space Gateway program would fill the role of “Gemini,” a stepping-stone to develop and prove technologies necessary for our next destinations—be it the Moon, Mars, or beyond.