NASA releases plans for deep space exploration

Mike Staton
Mike Staton wrote this post.

Hey, gather close. I’ve some news for you. Late in March, NASA unveiled plans for human Mars missions.

What? You heard nothing about them? Some space sites reported on the announcement, but the traditional news media ignored NASA Associate Administrator Bill Gerstenmaier’s presentation to the space agency’s advisory council. That’s sad, since Gerstenmaier finally offered up missions for NASA’s huge SLS rocket and its four-person spacecraft, Orion.

DSG orbit change Okan 170 Nathan Koga
The solar electric power engine for the Deep Space Gateway fires to change the space station’s orbit around the moon.

Critics of SLS and Orion have been complaining for nearly a decade that the rocket and spacecraft have no actual missions to justify their $24.8 billion cost. Well, NASA now has missions for SLS and Orion – out to the late 2020s.

The space agency – with the help of the nation’s new space companies like SpaceX – intends to build a small moon-orbiting space station and a larger reusable transport ship to carry astronauts to Mars and back.

The low-key unveiling was probably deliberate, some space supporter say. Politically speaking, these are turbulent times, and NASA needs to tread carefully. Once upon a time, bipartisan support was a given when it came to NASA. Is that still the case three months into the President Trump Administration? When President Obama sought to end NASA’s new monster rocket and make Orion a rescue boat for the space station, Republican and Democrats in Congress said NO, and kept NASA on a course for eventual manned deep space exploration. Can that kind of cooperation continue in today’s heated political climate?

Hab module towed to moon Okan170 Nathan Koga
Space artist Nathan Koga depicts the Gateway’s habitation module being towed to moon orbit by an Orion spacecraft sometime in the early 2020s.

NASA’s plans for the next decade for SLS and Orion are affordable – as long as the space agency doesn’t do business as usual. Agency officials need to use the government/private enterprise system that produced the privately owned cargo ships flying to the space station and the manned taxi craft now in development. In fact, use it in a stripped down version with fewer regulations and less government bureaucracy. NASA’s centers don’t need to be designing the space station and transport craft down to the last bolt. That’s the Apollo way. NASA’s budget won’t be awash in funding. President Trump’s going to ask NASA to do more with less. That means allowing companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX to build the craft their way.

Orion docked to partly built DSG-Okan170
The artwork shows Orion docked to the unfinished Deep Space Gateway, NASA’s next mission if the politicians provide sufficient funding to make it happen.

Gerstenmaier says NASA still has the can-do attitude. “There’s nothing this agency cannot do,” he said in a news release. “If you can give us a clear direction, and give us reasonable resources, this agency and its contractor base will accomplish what you want.”

Phase 1: Deep Space Gateway

That’s right… NASA’s small, moon-orbiting space station will be the gateway to deep space including Mars. The agency will spend the 2020s learning how to live and work in lunar orbit – three days from Earth – as preparatory work for trips to Mars in the 2030s. The spacecraft that will fly to Mars will be tested at the Deep Space Gateway (DSG). The interplanetary craft needs to function for years, not weeks or months. There will be shakedown cruises long before the reusable craft fires its engines and heads for Mars.

SLS and Orion
The Saturn-class SLS rocket and the Orion spacecraft atop it are prepared for launch in the Vehicular Assembly Building.

Just like the International Space Station now in low Earth orbit, the DSG will have international and commercial partners. Already, Japan may supply a lab module, and Canada, a robotic arm. Private companies will upgrade their cargo ships to supply the DSG.

The DSG won’t be like the International Space Station. Plans don’t call for it to be continually manned. Astronauts will be aboard only while Orion is docked to it. It can support a crew of four for 42 days.

Assembly of the DSG will begin in 2022 or 2023 with launch of a power and propulsion bus and be finished by 2026 with delivery of an airlock – altogether, four flights of the SLS and the Orion. That’s right, the Orion will transport the DSG sections to what’s called cis-lunar space.

SLS launches
The powerful SLS rocket thunders away from the Kennedy Space Center sometime in the 2020s. It’s on a mission to build the Deep Space Gateway.

The power and propulsion bus will be based on the now-canceled Asteroid Robotic Redirect mission, the Obama administration’s plan to bring a piece of asteroid back to the moon for investigation by Orion astronauts. The bus is a 40-kilowatt solar election propulsion system (SEP) that’s an order of magnitude more powerful than any SEP system operating today. The SEP bus will allow the DSG to maneuver between an always-in-sunlight halo orbit to other orbits that could be used for other applications – including lunar landings. A lunar module is not part of NASA’s plans right now, but a private company could build one and use the DSG for staging a tourist mission to the surface. Or NASA could buy landers. According to Gerstenmaier, the bus will also be equipped with 12-kilowatt maneuvering thrusters as well as chemical propulsion capability.

Next, a SLS rocket will launch a manned Orion and a habitation module to the DSG in 2024. The hab module will be docked to the power and propulsion bus. The DSG will be ready for Orion’s four astronauts to perform possible scientific experiments. The mission will last between 16 and 26 days.

jap lab towed by Orion to DSG
The Japanese science module is towed to the nascent Deep Space Gateway.

Another four-person crew launches in 2025 with a logistics module and a Canadian-built robotic arm. At this point, the DSG will be able to support a four-person crew for up to 42 days. The final manned flight – set for 2026 – will see astronauts deliver an airlock to the DSG. Also, two commercial cargo flights have been scheduled for 2025 and 2026.

Phase 2: The Deep Space Transport

When construction of the DSG is finished, NASA intends to launch its manned interplanetary craft to the lunar space station for shakedown testing. Called the Deep Space Transport, or DST, the exploration vehicle will be much larger than the lunar gateway station. Remember Skylab, the first U.S. space station launched in the early 1970s? NASA converted a third stage of the Saturn V moon rocket into a spacious space station, then used one of its last Saturn V’s to launch it into orbit.

The Saturn V third stage was 6.6 meters wide, which made Skylab the same diameter. SLS has a fairing diameter of 8.4 meters, and Gerstenmaier says the DST will be designed to take advantage of the large volumes and mass that can be launched by the SLS rocket. If the DST is supplied by Bigelow Aerospace, the spacecraft will be an inflatable design that would be truly gargantuan. The 41-metric ton manned vehicle would be launched in 2027 by a cargo version of the SLS rocket.

Deep Space Transport
The Deep Space Transport, the spacecraft NASA hopes takes astronauts to Mars in the 2030s, leaves the lunar gateway station for a shakedown test drive.

NASA wants the DST to support an astronaut crew of four for missions lasting up to 1,000 days – or nearly three years. It’s to be reusable. The space agency wants it to be able to complete three round trips to Mars. The DST won’t be a Tinkertoy like the ISS now orbiting our planet. Its interior will include a flight deck, hab section, science lab, exercise area, greenhouse, medical quarters and logistics section – everything needed to make voyages to Mars.

Later in 2027, an Orion will deliver a four-man crew to the DST, which will be docked to the gateway station. This crew will test out the DST on a 191-221 day mission with the craft still docked to the lunar station. The ship’s supply section will need to house all replacement equipment (the ship will also have 3-D printers), since Earth will be too far away for NASA to launch resupply cargo ships like it does for the ISS.

SEP for deep space
Near Earth, the Deep Space Transport is seen firing its solar electric power engine.

Another four-man crew will test the DST in 2029 in a one-year test drive with the spacecraft undocked from the gateway station. If all goes well, NASA will be ready to embark for Mars in the early 2030s. That first mission will be an orbital mission with possibly a landing on one of Mars’ two moons, Phobos or Deimos. A later mission will be a landing mission.

Mars beckons. Will we set sail?

# # #

I’m an author with three fantasy novels to my credit – The Emperor’s Mistress, Thief’s Coin and Assassins’ Lair. The books make up a trilogy titled Larenia’s Shadow. A fourth novel, this one a historical romance set during the Civil War, is scheduled for publication in October. It’s called Blessed Shadows Dark and Deep. All my novels can be purchased via the website of my publisher, Wings ePress, as well as the websites of Amazon and Barnes and Noble.


17 thoughts on “NASA releases plans for deep space exploration

    1. I remember ‘My Favorite Martian’ as well… back in our childhood days. Bill Bixby and the Martin, Ray Ralston. I remember that Ralston starred in a movie called “Damn Yankees,” and the famous song in it: ‘Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets.’


  1. Going to the moon was BIG. Impossible, but we did it. Wow! Going to Mars? Okay. One more technological advance. Yawn.

    Do you think young people–that phrase covers a lot of territory nowadays–will ever be as excited and awed as we were, and are, about space exploration?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Some young people will, especially when they realize that these early flights are precursors to a Mars colony — and they will have the opportunity to be a part of that experience. The commercial space guys like Elon Musk plan to build the infrastructure for a Mars colony. I can see him using his hyperloop trains to transport settlers between settlements. I wish I was younger so I could see what will unfold. Progress in space was so slow in the late 20th century — folks seemed satisfied with getting their ‘kicks’ from Star Trek style films and TV shows.


  2. Perhaps the future of space will be developed over the next 20 years that will keep the missions to the stars and beyond a viable concept. I for one am thrilled. Doris

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow, you have really done your research. I’m supposing you may be interested partially because of your interest in fantasy? Good marriage of interests I’m thinking. It is exciting, and another frontier or aspect of it for people to explore. Mind boggling too for me. We have already discovered so many aspects and capabilities of our universe, perhaps this will show us a few more. Shrinking our world even more. Great blog full of information.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was a fan of SF before fantasy. I’d buy books about flights to the moon and Mars back when in elementary school, long before Neil Armstrong stepped down the LM ladder. I also had an interest in space exploration early in my life because my dad worked for BF Goodrich Aerospace. Remember, Goodrich provided NASA the Mercury spacesuits for those seven original astronauts.


  4. Isn’t it amazing to think the science fiction movies and tv shows of old (My Favorite Martin Star Trek, Lost in Space, Buck Rodgers and so many others) may actually be coming to pass? One never knows what lies ahead 10, 20, or more years into the future. Educational and intriguing post, Mike!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad you enjoyed the post. I have to admit… I’m disappointed that we haven’t made more progress in space. But I am so optimistic now that we have these new commercial space companies doing amazing stuff, companies like Space X. Every time I see a SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage return and land, I am just amazed. I bet if NASA told SpaceX to design and build a lunar lander at bargain-basement prices, Elon Musk could do it in short order.


  5. Informative post, Mike. I don’t follow space exploration much but have lately been learning more and more about possible life on Mars and future travel. I worked the Mars book event for Leonard David and was impressed by how many young students were excited by Mars exploration and asking a lot of questions.


    1. Great bit of information about Leonard David, Sarah. I have never met him personally, but know of him through the National Space Society. Space fans have always been too divided to be much of a PAC force for space exploration, in my opinion. The space forums I browse seem to mostly be made up of space fans who love to get into metaphorical knife fights..


  6. It’s good that NASA is able to adjust to the uncertain times we are living with. Thanks for keeping us informed and educating us a bit.


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