NASA Moon Outpost
An artist's illustration of spacecraft in orbit around the moon, with Earth visible in the background. NASA

Decades after putting the first man on the moon, and also the last, NASA is considering sending humans to Earth’s only natural satellite again. Toward that end, and also to further capabilities of human space exploration farther from Earth (keeping in mind plans to send astronauts to Mars), the space agency is planning an outpost in orbit around the moon.

Called the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, it will be like a space station in an orbit around the moon, and is planned to be ready for human habitation by 2023. To be assembled in space over time (much like the International Space Station, or ISS), the first module will be a power and propulsion system, which is targeted for a 2022 launch.

It would use “high-power solar electric propulsion” to maintain the position of the platform in a lunar orbit, and would also be capable of shifting the orbit closer to or farther from the moon, depending on science and exploration objectives. Another capability of this module would be to operate as a hi-tech communications platform to relay between Earth, space, the moon and other spacecraft, as well as to transfer large amounts of data using lasers.

Currently, five companies are completing four-month studies, as part of NASA’s public-private partnership, to develop this module in an affordable way. The space agency is also considering partnerships for other elements of the gateway, such as logistics, airlocks and habitation modules. The launch of the elements into space for assembly could be done using NASA’s upcoming Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft, or commercial rockets.

The module for human habitation will be launched in 2023, if everything goes according to plan. While the partnership with private companies will inform some of the capabilities of this module, it will also benefit from the knowledge already accumulated from the ISS and its partners. This module would allow the gateway’s crew to live and work in deep space for 30-60 days at a stretch.

The airlock module would allow the crew to conduct spacewalks, and also to attach future elements that will become a part of the gateway. Resupply missions to the gateway will be done using commercial cargo spacecraft.

Crew onboard the platform will undertake scientific, commercial and exploration activities not only around the moon, but also on the lunar surface. NASA will also work on developing increasingly complex robotic missions that will be deployed to the moon’s surface before a human crew goes there.

“The Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway will give us a strategic presence in cislunar space. It will drive our activity with commercial and international partners and help us explore the moon and its resources. We will ultimately translate that experience toward human missions to Mars,” William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator, Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., said in a statement Wednesday.