The world’s space agencies focus in on their roles for Gateway moon missions

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine is surrounded by top officials from other space agencies as he talks about what lies ahead for NASA and its partners on the final frontier. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Not everyone has signed on the dotted line to join NASA’s plan to start sending astronauts to the moon in 2024 via an outpost in lunar orbit known as the Gateway, but the world’s leading space agencies are already staking out their roles.

Russia, for example, plans to work on its own space transportation system that would parallel NASA’s Space Launch System rocket and Orion crew capsule. Europe and Japan are planning to provide logistical support for space operations. And Canada will be supplying the Gateway’s robotic arm.

Space agency officials laid out the status of their plans for the final frontier today during a panel discussion and follow-up news briefing at the International Astronautical Congress in Washington.

The top item on the agenda for crewed space exploration is NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to send the first woman and the next man to the moon’s south polar region in 2024. Based on what’s already been said about Artemis, it’s a safe bet that the first two moonwalkers will be American — but NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said representatives of NASA’s partner space agencies will eventually get their chance as well.

“There’s lots of room on the moon,” Bridenstine told reporters. “And we need all the international partners to go with us to the moon.”

He said the arrangements, presumably including who gets to go in which order, will be determined by the “levels of contribution” to the Artemis space effort, including the Gateway outpost that’s due to be constructed in an eccentric, Earth-facing orbit between now and 2024.

Canada’s space agency was the first to sign onto NASA’s Gateway project, with the complex Canadarm3 robotic arm to serve as its main contribution. Japan followed just last week, and the European Space Agency seems likely to give its thumbs-up during a ministerial meeting to be held next month.

ESA is already providing the service module for NASA’s Orion spacecraft. “We believe we can contribute to Gateway,” ESA Director General Jan Wörner said.

Russia’s Roscosmos space agency believes it can contribute as well. Roscosmos registered its interest in the Gateway concept a couple of years ago, when it was still being formulated. Today Sergei Krikalev, a former cosmonaut who’s in charge of piloted spaceflight at Roscosmos, said he was sure Russia would follow through on that interest, although “we don’t have a final decision how, or which way.”

He said it’s likely that Russia will provide launch capabilities that parallel NASA’s Orion spacecraft and its yet-to-be-flown SLS rocket, just as Russia’s Soyuz rockets and spacecraft provided redundant capability during NASA’s space shuttle era.

“The transportation system is going to be a joint system,” Krikalev told reporters.

Commercial space ventures in the U.S. and other countries will have roles as well. Bridenstine pointed out that SpaceX and Boeing are already planning to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station beginning next year, and that NASA is in the midst of receiving proposals for commercial lunar landing systems.

“There’s a lot of interest. … I think you’re going to see a lot of announcements regarding different companies and organizations that are interested in going to the surface of the moon,” Bridenstine said.

Not everyone is on the Gateway bandwagon yet: S. Somanath, director of India’s Vikram Sarabhai Space Center, noted that his country was still in the early stages of developing a human spaceflight program and isn’t ready to get into the Gateway. “It’s a question of priorities,” he said.

China, which has been left out of the International Space Station program due to U.S. sanctions, is a big question mark. A Chinese space official had been listed as a participant in today’s gathering of space agency officials. But organizers of the event said the official was a no-show due to “time conflicts.”

Bridenstine stressed that the long-term goal of the Artemis moon program was to prepare the way for missions to Mars.

“If we accelerate the moon landing, we are accelerating the Mars landing. That’s what we’re doing,” he said. “Look, if our budgets were sufficient, which is going to require a lot of us on this stage to work with our governments, I would suggest that we could do it by 2035.”

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