Goodbye deep-space gateway, hello LOP-G.
Now just in case you’re wondering what I’m going on about, this is the news that the next Space Station, the one to replace the ISS, has had a bit of a makeover and will now be called the lunar orbital platform gateway, or LOP-G instead of a deep-space gateway.
The most expensive object ever built was the International Space Station, which combining launch assembly, maintenance, and contributions from Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada, has so far cost more than a hundred and fifty billion u.s. dollars.
Using that price tag if we assume that the ISS has had some 20,000 days from 2000 to 2015.
It works out at about seven and a half million dollars per person per day.
The previous u.s. space station — Skylab, was about 5.5 million dollars per person per day.
Even by the standards of space programs, a hundred and fifty billion dollars is an astronomical sum. The entire cost of the Apollo program adjusted for inflation has been estimated at a hundred and nine billion dollars, and the constellation Mars program, which was in 2000, was projected at a mere forty billion dollars.
NASA has recently committed to a future investment of three billion dollars per year until at least 2024, but why has a space station received so much of NASA’s budget where many other ambitious programs suffer cuts and cancellation?
To answer this question we have to look back at the history of the first space stations in low-earth orbit.
In the 1960s both the USA and the USSR invested in designing massive rockets, specialized for lifting super heavy payloads into orbit, and onto the moon.
The Saturn 5 could carry an unsurpassed 140 tons into low-earth orbit. The Soviet n1 rocket was designed to lift 95 tons above the earth.
Even though it never actually made it past its first four test flights, though its successor, the Energia, which flew the Buran into orbit, was able to lift a hundred tons.
When it became clear that the Americans would be the first humans to land on the lunar surface, the USSR shifted their focus to another thing you can do with a super heavy launch capacity. This shifting focus began an ambitious program of Space Station development.
The Soviets launching for Salyut space stations and three Almas’ military stations between 1971 and 1986. America answered with the 1973 launch of Skylab, a 77 tons station built from a modified upper stage for Saturn 1b, which hosted three manned crews before re-entering over Australia in 1979.
From that point the U.S. has been concentrated on the space shuttle, although the Soviet Salyut stations were much smaller at less than 19 tons each, they paved the way from the first modular space station. But when the USSR collapsed in 1991, Western governments worried that the brain drain from Soviet rocket labs could provide rogue states, with engineers and scientists, to spread ballistic missile technology.
To avoid this the American government searched for ways to keep Russian engineers employed in peaceful space projects. One solution was to repurpose the plan for the Soviet space station to form part of a new International Space Station.
This was agreed upon and the first modules from the MIR were adapted to form two of the core modules of the ISS. The ISS also provided continued employment for American engineers, and the space shuttle, which flew 26 missions to lift the components into orbit.
Visible from all over Earth as a bright dot racing across the night sky, the ISS provided an impressive and expensive collaborative purpose for the world space programs at a crucial moment — the end of the most violent century of human history.
But after decades of development and investment, the ISS will, at some point in the not-too-distant future, be abandoned to the forces of Earth’s atmosphere, ending its 30 years or so mission as the most expensive fireworks display in history somewhere over the Pacific Ocean.
Meanwhile, the space industry is going through another period of turbulence, a new space race, this time between public and private agencies.
Looking ahead to the next decade, NASA has gone back to the drawing board, to plan a new International Space Station for the 2020s.
This project also appears to have the support of the current US presidential administration. If you are thinking that by now we will have space stations were giant centrifugal rings create artificial gravity for the living and working quarters, like the ones that were seen in the sci-fi films, 50 or so years ago, then you’ll be rather disappointed. In fact, if you’re comparing sci-fi to the ISS you’re going to be disappointed, in its current form, will be a lot smaller with just four modules compared to the 16 of the ISS.
Like the ISS, LOP-G will be a collaborative venture between private and public entities and will draw upon funding from NASA, Roskosmos, ESA, JAXA, Japanese Space Agency, and CSA, the Canadian Space Agency.
Unlike the ISS, LOP-G will be drawn upon designs of previous canceled projects. The first proposed module is the PPE, or power and propulsion element, and will provide, as the name suggests, electrical power plant and an ion thruster with propulsion capability.
The PPE will feature an international docking system, standard ports on either end for connecting additional modules, the ones like the next generation Russian spacecraft, and possibly at some point in the future, a Chinese module.
The PPE is based on a robotic spacecraft designed as part of the asteroid redirect mission. All are from that mission, which was defunded last year, aimed to land on a near-earth asteroid, capturing a boulder and returning it for study by astronauts.
The seven and a half ton PPE module is set to launch on the second mission for the SLS and the Orion spacecraft in 2022.
This will also be the first manned flight of the Orion crewed module, so mission success will depend a lot upon the new systems functioning as planned.
SLS will deliver the Orion and the PPE to a translunar injection orbit, which will then set the space station off towards a course to the moon, then the thrusters will fire for the first time to complete the planned orbit.
This isn’t a lunar orbit, it will be in cislunar space, which means an orbit between geostationary Earth orbit and lunar orbit. Here the space station will remain outside of much of the Earth’s and the moon’s gravity wells allowing efficient access for future missions, either to the moon or back to earth.
The SLS block 1b rocket can actually lift 39 metric tons into translunar injection orbit, enough to lift all four sections of the proposed LOP-G in one launch, or two, depending upon volume limitations.
However, the current plan is to launch each module alongside a 23-ton Orion spacecraft and deliver the habitation module then. The Logistics Module and finally the airlock, by the middle of the 2020s. On each of these missions, a four-person crew will be able to remain at the LOP-G for up to 21 days, doubling Orion’s maximum mission time.
Will also be outside of the Earth’s magnetic field and the protection it gives against charged particles and cosmic rays. Now some might say why do we need to redo all the testing when it was done with Apollo? Well, the longest Apollo mission was Apollo 17 and it was 12 days long including three days on the moon.
Compared to now, it used 60-year old tech. We’ve learned a lot since then and manufacturing techniques have changed dramatically, but it’s still nice testing missions in deep space where no human has been before.
The LOP-G gives us the best opportunity to test conditions like this, but still be relatively close to the earth. It could also be used to remotely operate equipment on the moon, and be a stopping-off point for the next generation of lunar explorers, as a transit from the earth to the moon and in back again.
However, if we can demonstrate and prove the technology needed to survive beyond the Earth’s magnetosphere, then a proven launch platform such as the SLS or maybe a private company, may open the door for a more long-term program of more ambitious missions around the solar system.
As always a giant leap forward in political cooperation will be necessary before we take the next steps towards the manned exploration of our planetary neighborhood.