NASA’s Gateway hopes to open the door to deep space travel
Since the beginning of human history, we’ve looked up at the stars and wondered what’s out there. In the 1960s we made it to the moon, and since then, we’ve tried to go even further. We sent robots to Mars, and probes to the edges of the solar system and beyond. NASA recently proposed a new spacecraft to help move us further out into space. What do you need to know about Gateway, NASA’s new spaceship?
Recently, the Chinese National Space Administration sent a lander and rover to the dark side of the moon. Their goal was to discover, among other things, whether plant life in a contained oxygen environment was capable of sprouting and surviving on the moon.
The answer is yes, at least partially.
Cotton plants within the lander did sprout successfully, but they quickly succumbed to the brutally cold lunar night, which can drop down to -250 degrees F at its coldest point. This experiment should have lasted 100 days, but the cotton plants only survived for 212.75 hours, and there’s no indication that any of the other seeds survived the long lunar night.
In spite of this apparent failure, China’s moon landing reinvigorated our desire to send astronauts back to our satellite — and beyond. That’s where Gateway comes in.
The Gateway Spaceship
Imagine being an astronaut in the 2030s. You’re scheduled to head to Mars on the next available shuttle, but right now it takes six months to reach the red planet when it’s at the closest point in its orbit. If we’re not in quite the right place when the rocket launches, the journey could take up to eight months — or even longer if the launch isn’t timed perfectly and we miss Mars in its orbit around the sun.
In addition to this, you also have to account for the amount of fuel you need to reach Mars, as well as how much is required to escape Earth’s gravitational pull.
Imagine if you didn’t need to worry about escaping a planet’s powerful gravitational pull before you could begin your journey to our nearest planetary neighbor?
That’s what Gateway hopes to do. This ship — more of a space station, really — will hopefully be in orbit around the moon by the late 2020s. In the words of NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, “This time, when we go to the moon, we will stay.”
The Gateway Planning Phase
Right now, the Gateway Station is still in the design phase. A lunar orbit presents a whole new set of challenges for engineers and scientists. Energetic solar particles, or solar winds, can devastate Earth-made electronics and pose danger to human life. Here on Earth, we’re protected from the brunt of these particles by our planet’s magnetosphere — a bubble surrounding our world that is generated by Earth’s magnetic field. The astronauts on the International Space Station are protected by this same bubble in their low earth orbit, but lunar astronauts wouldn’t have that protection.
Electronics on the Gateway Station will need unprecedented levels of shielding and electromagnetic compatibility testing to ensure they are capable of surviving our first step into interstellar space. The technology successfully used on the International Space Station may be adapted for Gateway, but it will need to be more robust, durable, and resistant to radiation and solar winds to be successful.
We’ll have a better idea of the final form of Gateway in the coming years, but NASA’s goal for this station is to have it be as self-sustaining as possible — air and water recycling for the astronauts, as well as ways to grow food — in addition to life support, habitation, medical facilities, and scientific labs. Astronauts could spend up to 12 months on the station at a time — more if we can come up with a way to counter the adverse effects of zero or microgravity.
Zero Gravity and Astronaut Health
One of the biggest challenges in the creation of the Gateway Station isn’t in its construction, or it’s placement, or even in creating a suitable habitat for human astronauts. It’s the zero or microgravity environments that these astronauts will live in during their stay. The human body is designed to grow and thrive under Earth’s gravitational pull. In a weightless environment, the body doesn’t know what to do with itself.
Your bones lose calcium, weakening them and making fractures more likely. Without Earth’s gravity pulling down on you, your muscles begin to lose tone. Scott Kelly’s 12-month stay on the International Space Station helped NASA doctors discover that extended periods in zero-gravity increase ocular pressure, causing vision problems.
It’s not all bad though. Kelly’s doctors also discovered that his extended stay in low-earth orbit lengthened his telomeres. Telomeres are like an hourglass for your cells — the shorter they are, the closer the cell is to death. This discovery will require more study, which we’ll have ample time for once NASA completes the Gateway Station, but it could have the potential to extend human life. That is if we can counter the rest of the adverse effects of living in zero-G.
Looking to the Future
A lunar station is our first step into deep space travel, and it’s the best choice NASA could make for our first crewed station outside of Earth’s orbit. It gives us a chance to get things right the first time — and if something does go wrong, the astronauts can be evacuated back to Earth in days instead of months. With the successful test launch of Crew Dragon back in early March, SpaceX may fly astronauts to this lunar station once it is complete.
Gateway will quite literally be our gateway to the stars. It will give us a launching point for missions into deep space, where we don’t have to pack on tons of extra fuel to get us out of the atmosphere. A launch from Gateway or the lunar surface will take a fraction of the force that an Earth launch does. Keep your eyes peeled — you might even spot Gateway, once construction is complete, from home with the help of a backyard telescope.
Written by: Megan Ray Nichols, BOSS Contributor
Megan is a STEM writer and blogger at https://schooledbyscience.com/