The project, formerly known as the Deep Space Gateway, is the most realistic alternative to the International Space Station. However, “alternative” is not quite the right word, because the new station, unlike the ISS, will be in the orbit of the Moon.
In truth, there are many problems associated with orbital stations. And this is not only about the complexity of the technical implementation: it goes without saying. The main thing is that it is completely unclear why such expensive structures are needed. Earlier, during the years of confrontation between the USSR and the United States, everything was perfectly clear: each superpower sought to prove to the other that "it is better than it is." This was not always done in reasonable and pragmatic ways. With the now progressing "nostalgia for the Soviet past," it must be admitted that the Soviet leadership often spent gigantic sums of money, not thinking about the future at all. It is believed that more than $ 4 billion was spent on Mir commissioned in 1986. Perhaps, it is far from the best option for the stagnating economy of the USSR and the depressive Russian situation in the 90s. Although no one is going to diminish the merits of domestic engineers. After all, the first multi-module manned orbital station in history.
The price of the ISS is even higher, and significantly. The cost of the entire project is estimated at $ 150 billion. In the 90s, the West, without too much enthusiasm, included the now capitalist Russia among the participants: fortunately, it inherited the Union's vast experience in the construction of OS.
The ISS is not only the most expensive, but also the most criticized space project. The above price can frighten anyone, but this effect becomes even stronger from the understanding that all (or almost all) of the experiments carried out on board the ISS could have been carried out on Earth - under conditions simulated in accordance with the requirements of the experiment. American professor Robert Park (Robert Park) believes that most of the planned research within the ISS is not at all of primary importance to earthlings. According to the American journalist Jeff Faust (Jeff Foust), maintenance of the ISS requires too many dangerous and expensive spacewalks. And the patriots are also dissatisfied with the station: the American ones - the fact that the station is not fully owned by the United States, and the Russian ones - that it belongs to the States to a large extent. In general, as a project of international cooperation, the ISS also did not fully justify itself, although it demonstrated that the most powerful countries can unite to achieve common goals. What's really important.
Finally, the most important question is the future of the ISS. Lately, the media has been frequently reiterating the estimated date - 2024: the time when the United States may stop funding the station. However, this will not necessarily put an end to her story. Not so long ago, the former CEO of S7 Space Transport Systems (part of the S7 group of companies) Sergei Sopov announced that he wanted to take the Russian segment of the ISS from Roscosmos on a concession. However, this is a completely different conversation.
An example of a "useful" orbital station was shown by the creators of the science fiction film "The Cloverfield Paradox", released in 2018. According to the plot, the Earth of the future suffers from an energy crisis - and the leading countries launch the Cloverfield station to improve and use the Shepard particle accelerator there, which is too dangerous for testing on the planet. Alas, despite a potentially interesting concept, critics took the film as a whole negatively.
Deep Space Gateway: the beginning
The above plays a decisive role: without this, it would be incomprehensible in what difficult and contradictory conditions the Deep Space Gateway project was born - a new lunar station. Let's make a reservation right away that now this is the most promising version of a new international station. Not because it is the best, but because other projects are even more obscure. China's modular space station, slated for completion in the 2020s, is likely to be purely national. And, frankly speaking, there is nothing breakthrough in it: against the background of the ISS, the reduced Chinese analogue of Mir does not look very impressive.
It makes no sense to consider all the stages of the Deep Space Gateway project - for this there is "Wikipedia". We only note that they started talking really seriously about the future station in 2017. It is pertinent to say here that in the same year, US President Donald Trump signed Directive No. 1, which calls for the return of the United States to our planet's satellite. Thus, the "Martian" ambitions of the Americans faded into the background, although it was Mars that for a long time was called the number one target for American astronautics.
Shortly before this, the ex-head of Roscosmos, Igor Komarov, made a loud statement: "We agreed that we will jointly participate in the project to create a new international near-moon station, Deep Space Gateway." 2018 saw another important milestone in the history of the lunar station - it was renamed from Deep Space Gateway to Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway. Then the Japanese agency JAXA and the European ESA signed a joint statement on space exploration, in which they support the development concept described in the third edition of the global development roadmap, including the creation of the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway.
However, by the end of 2017, none of the interested parties had guaranteed funding for the plant project. It was assumed that in 2019 about $ 504 million will be allocated for the project, and over the next few years, a total of 2.2 billion will be provided. As you can see, there are certain "body movements" in the direction of implementation. Another thing is that there are no guarantees, and the next global crisis may generally induce the abandonment of the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway.
Other projects, including international ones, look even more dubious than the Chinese one. There is a feeling that the specialists who propose them do not at all realize the cost of building orbital stations. It is pertinent to recall all sorts of examples of projects of large orbital hotels and space platforms for TV shows, which probably could never pay off.
The technical side
What is the station? First, the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway will be much smaller than the ISS. Nevertheless, it is assumed that four people will be able to work on it during the expedition for up to 60-90 days.
The Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway must include:
- Electric motor module;
- Small residential module;
- American residential module;
- International residential module;
- Communication module European System Providing Refuelling, Infrastructure and Telecommunications (ESPRIT);
- Supply module;
- Gateway module.
They want to launch an electric propulsion module first: on an American commercial rocket in 2022. In May 2019, Maxar Technologies (formerly SSL) won the competition for the development and provision of the module. The design of the module will be based on a 1300 class platform, the solar panels will be based on ROSA, and the power of the electrodynamic motor powered by solar panels will be about 50 kW. The mass of the module at the time of launch is 5000 kilograms.
By the way, it was previously reported that the Russian version of the gateway module can be created on the basis of the Pirs and Uzlovaya modules developed for the ISS. At the same time, it is optimized for US standards: this applies to the voltage in the mains and interfaces. Several launch options are being considered: using either the Space Launch System or the Russian Angara. It is also worth noting that there is even less information about the habitation modules and the supply module. This, however, is not so important at this stage.By the beginning of the construction of the station, the technical characteristics may be revised several more times. The general concept probably won't change anymore.
Not again, but again
We have come to the main question: why is such a station needed at all? In fact, the project made many experts indignant. They wondered whether it was necessary to fly to the Moon again if people had already landed on its surface six times as part of the Apollo program? The famous American popularizer of science and engineer Robert Zubrin called the station "NASA's worst plan." We quote: “We do not need a lunar station to get to the moon. We don't need this station to reach Mars. We don't need this station to land on near-Earth asteroids. We don't need it for anything. If the goal is to build the base of the moon, it must be built on the surface of the moon."
However, the famous Russian popularizer of science Vitaly Egorov has a different point of view. He focuses on the aforementioned American super-heavy rocket Space Launch System, which has already been invested in a huge amount of funds and which may first be launched in 2020. As is often the case with super-heavy rockets, they are needed only in the context of solving a narrow range of expensive tasks, such as a flight to the Moon or Mars. The Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway could give the project a second life: then all efforts to create a rocket would be absolutely justified.
The US began to develop the Space Launch System rocket instead of the Ares-5 rocket, which was canceled along with the Constellation program. The latter, in particular, involved flights to Mars. Now SLS is considered as a means of launching the promising Orion spacecraft into orbit.
Of course, it would be strange if the project of a new orbital station rested solely on a new carrier rocket. It has other potential benefits as well. Earlier, it was decided to place the station in a close-to-rectilinear halo orbit. The orbit chosen by NASA and ESA specialists has a pericenter of 3,000 kilometers and an apocenter of 70,000 kilometers. The plane of this orbit will rotate with the Moon, due to which it will always be turned towards the Earth, which will ensure uninterrupted direct communication with the Earth.
The advantage of this approach is its versatility. The station will not fly in a circle close to the surface like the Apollo series spacecraft. The halo orbit covers large areas around the satellite of our planet, so that the station will be able to "balance". This position is advantageous both for flights to the Moon (within the framework of the Artemis program) and for flights to other, more distant astronomical objects. If you assemble a spacecraft for a flight to Mars in a circumlunar halo orbit, then theoretically it is possible to save up to a third of the mass of fuel per flight, in comparison with a launch from a near-earth orbit. That is, it is possible to gradually deliver fuel and structural elements to the orbital station. In addition, it is possible that one or another operated part of the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway station will simultaneously be a compartment for the future Martian spacecraft. Although such unification, of course, will require additional design efforts. And the vague and distant dates of the landing on Mars, which NASA calls, probably will not contribute to this.
In general, there are options - however, some are not interested in this project in principle. The same Mask, for example. The Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway does not yet fit into his ambitious plans.
Lunar policy and Roscosmos
There is one more important aspect on which the experts emphasize: it lies in a purely political plane. The geopolitical confrontation between the United States and China is growing every year, despite the highest degree of mutual economic integration. Most likely, in the future this will affect not only the Asia-Pacific region, but also outer space. In this regard, we can recall the already mentioned plans of the Celestial Empire to build its "large orbital station." By the way, the Chinese have a single-module "Tiangong-2".
So we are talking about a status project for America. Do not forget that although the station is called "international", it, like the ISS, will be controlled primarily by the United States. Other project participants will not be able to make any important decisions without America, unless they refuse to participate.
Another important political moment is Russia's participation in the project. But this is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the station can act as a kind of mechanism for reconciliation between Russia and the United States, on the other, America has already been burned by its dependence on Russia in the case of manned space exploration and the supply of RD-180 engines for the first stages of Atlas-5 rockets. Now the American course is obvious: moving away from joint projects with Roscosmos. Suffice it to recall the acceleration of work on the Vulcan rocket, which will replace the Atlas-5 and will no longer use Russian engines. However, we would probably have seen something similar without the deterioration of relations between Washington and Moscow: after all, progress is going on, and the old Soviet technologies are not eternal.
For Roscosmos itself, the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway station may become the last hope to get a more or less clear target. After all, if the ISS is nevertheless deorbited in the mid-2020s, the Russian cosmonauts will simply have nowhere to go and there is no need to fly.
The plans to create a national orbital station were not criticized only by the lazy: obviously, Russia does not have the funds for this. Just as there are none for the landing of a man on the moon, which Dmitry Rogozin actively talked about earlier.
Back in 2015, it was reported that the "lunar" budget of "Roscosmos" fell under the sequestration. Due to financial difficulties, the space department was forced to "cut" the budget of the PPTK-2 (a promising manned transport complex), within the framework of which the lunar take-off and landing complex (LVPC) was being developed. In other words, no Russian landing on the moon should be expected in the foreseeable future. At the same time, Russia continues to develop a new manned spacecraft "Federation". It turns out that in the current realities there can be only one real goal for the future - the delivery of cargo and astronauts to the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway. At the same time, the astronauts are precisely domestic, since by the time the station is built (the approximate date is 2024), the United States will already begin to use new spaceships, such as the Dragon V2, Starliner (CST-100) or Orion. It turns out that the fate of Russian manned astronautics will again be largely in the hands of the United States. But will the Russian leadership like it?
I would like to note that NASA's plans for space exploration have changed so many times over the past decades that it was difficult at first to believe in another ambitious project. Revisions of goals and objectives are due to enormous costs, technological risks and general uncertainty. In this sense, the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway does not differ much from a number of previous programs that have been phased out. Time will tell what will happen to the new station. Much will depend on the Artemis lunar landing program, which is now being implemented in the West. If everything goes well with her, then the chances of building a new orbital station are quite high.