NASA has laid out a detailed outline of its goals for the next six years and beyond. The plan includes the commercialization of low Earth orbit, the long-term return of US astronauts to the Moon, and testing of technologies for a future manned Mars mission. Written in response to the Trump administration’s mandate that the space agency concentrate more on deep space exploration, the National Space Exploration Campaign Report outlines how a public/private partnership will help maintain American dominance in space.
It was in December 2017 that President Donald Trump signed Space Policy Directive-1, which called for NASA to concentrate its efforts on exploration while leaving Earth studies to NOAA and other agencies. This was followed by the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017 that sparked the National Space Exploration Campaign tasked with developing the US manned and robotic exploration missions, both for the near term and to support more long-term planetary exploration goals.
According to the report, NASA plans to springboard its new exploration campaigns off of the 18 years of continuous operation of the International Space Station (ISS). The agency sees the ISS as a key laboratory for building new space outposts, gaining a better understanding of how humans respond to prolonged exposure to spaceflight, and the development of pilot technologies that will one day be adapted to deep space missions.
The plan sees the US government continuing its role as the primary partner in the ISS through 2024 before transitioning to a sharing the station, in whole or in part, to private operators for the remaining four years of the station’s projected service life. In addition, NASA will rely not only on the ISS and the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy launch vehicle currently under development, but private rockets and orbital outposts as well.
This transition to the private sector dominating low Earth orbit is the first of a five-stage plan by NASA to spur competition and innovation. The other four goals focus on the Gateway – a manned outpost that will orbit the Moon and will be served by the Orion spacecraft, which can carry a crew of four on deep space missions of up to 21 days. Not only will the Gateway dramatically extend mission times, but it will also act as the jumping off point for a new, sustained campaign of lunar exploration that will combine scientific research with an assessment of the Moon’s commercial potential.
According to the report, the first American Orion manned mission will orbit the Moon in 2023 with a return to the lunar surface by the end of the 2020s. The Gateway will act as a jumping off point for assembling and fueling lunar landing missions as a test platform for new technologies, as well as a laboratory to study the effects of deep space on human health.
Even before the next manned lunar landings, NASA plans to work with commercial and international partners on robotic missions for exploration and sample returns, as well as preparing the first outposts for a sustained human presence. Once on the Moon, astronauts will act as latter-day Lewis and Clarks as they catalog the Moon’s resources and how to exploit them.
Both the Gateway and the lunar outpost will act as test platforms for Mars missions that could reach the Red Planet sometime in the 2030s. This would allow NASA and partners to develop and test Mars mission technologies closer to home, where it’s safer, and to build refueling depots for the first manned planetary missions.