Demand and supply in deep space – How NASA plans a permanent return to the moon
NASA is planning a permanent return to the moon, which first means building a supply chain from Earth to a lunar outpost called Gateway.
The countdown has started: NASA is preparing to blast off to the moon again, half a century since it last went there. It has fired up its Artemis program (in Greek mythology, Artemis is the twin sister of Apollo, the name of the original moonshot project) and is planning to land the first woman and the next man on the lunar surface by 2024. This time, though, things are going to be different.
This time, NASA is planning to stay in deep space. If this sounds like another giant leap for humanity, you haven’t heard anything yet, says Mark Wiese, NASA Gateway Logistics Element Manager. Ultimately, the idea is to tap into the moon’s resources so that it can be used as a launchpad to Mars. “We’re going to the moon to extract ice and turn it into water,” he says. “We can then build technology and other capabilities on the moon’s surface so that our astronauts can learn to live off the land. Essentially the moon will become a scientific proving ground and a logistical hub – a base that will allow us to further explore our solar system and propel us on to Mars.” If all goes to plan on the moon, NASA hopes to reach the Red Planet in the early 2030s to replicate the success.
New commercial frontier in space
But first things first. The initial phase of the Artemis program is the creation of a small lunar outpost called the Gateway that will orbit around the moon. This will be the size of a studio apartment and feature living quarters and laboratories for science and research. Astronauts will use it as their base, shuttling backward and forward to the lunar surface where they will carry out research and exploration missions. The first part of the structure is already being built and will be sent into space in 2022, followed by a habitation and logistics outpost module (called HALO) in 2023, which will give the crew extra space and include docking ports for visiting supply ships. The Gateway is expected to be fully assembled in 2026.
Creating a permanent presence in space means building a complex supply chain from Earth to the Gateway – and Wiese and his team are leading development. Of course, space logistics isn’t a new phenomenon: Astronauts and cosmonauts on the International Space Station (ISS) receive a delivery of cargo, equipment and food around six times a year, with commercial companies Space X and Northrop Grumman performing resupply missions for NASA.
But the Gateway presents an entirely new commercial frontier in space. To begin with, this will be a deep space supply chain operation. To put it in context, the International Space Station flies in low orbit just 250 miles (400 kilometers) above Earth, whereas the Gateway will operate around 250,000 miles (400,000 kilometers) from Earth. With this greater distance, however, comes greater commercial opportunity. Companies will be working with NASA to supply astronauts with everything they need to live and work on the Gateway; but they will also be able to deliver other elements of crucial lunar architecture as the mission develops and capabilities start to be built on the moon’s surface.
Opportunities for every industry
For example, NASA has asked industry for innovative ways to transport cargo, science experiments and supplies between Earth and the Gateway (a 15-year contract worth $7 billion) and is considering bids from multiple private companies who want to be part of the initial push into deep space. It’s also seeking capabilities from companies to deliver a logistics spacecraft with pressurized and unpressurized cargo to the Gateway for six months of docked operations. NASA is also pursuing lunar landers that will deliver heavier payloads to the surface of the moon. And it needs technology firms to develop autonomous innovations to make the crew’s lives as easy as possible, and prevent them having to complete mundane tasks such as loading and unloading supplies from docking spacecraft.
Purpose and opportunity
Supply and demand opportunities on the Gateway might be met in a different way if the 3D printing of essential items in deep space turns out to be a possibility (much like NASA has done in low orbit on the International Space Station). In future, astronauts might even be able to use 3D printing to make the architecture they will need to live and work on the surface of habitable planets. “The Artemis program offers expanding opportunities across all types of industries,” says Wiese. “By taking advantage of these, companies will be able to help push our economy all the way out to the moon.”
There is a real-world purpose to this deep space adventure, notes Wiese, who points out that the advances made during the Artemis program could help drive innovations on Earth – and that includes the logistics industry. “For the last 50 years, we haven’t been able to speed up delivery of cargo from, say, the U.S. to Europe,” he says. “It still takes a big cargo aircraft and a certain amount of hours to get across the Atlantic. But, as our capabilities increase and as we push down the cost of rocket technology and reusability, we envision a day where we’ll say to a courier: ‘I need to get this package on the next rocket launch,’ so that it can get from Florida to its destination in the U.K. in hours and minutes, instead of days. It’s another reason why we need industry to come with us on this journey into space. We are going.” ― Tony Greenway
Published: April 2020