Since at least Spring 2017, NASA has been bouncing around some vague plans for a space station in cislunar orbit known as the Deep Space Gateway, which could consist of four modules launched by the SLS between 2021 and 2026. It could theoretically be used as a refueling and service station for missions on their way to other destinations in the solar system.
At the 68th International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia, it was revealed that Russia’s Roscosmos is interested in joining NASA in building the Deep Space Gateway. The two space agencies have signed paperwork that would begin the process of looking into common exploration objectives and missions that include the Deep Space Gateway. According to the Russian news agency TASS, Roscosmos could provide one to three modules for the Gateway.
Some skeptics do question whether the Deep Space Gateway is even necessary for deep space exploration, let alone make a good tool for international cooperation. While it might be nice to have as a possible retreat point if a deep space mission has to abort but still has the capacity to reach lunar orbit, some aerospace insiders say that it will only drive up costs and delay manned missions to Mars. At most, a space station in lunar orbit would be (obviously) useful as a staging platform for manned and unmanned exploration of the lunar surface.
Debate: What Should Be The Way Forward for NASA?
Most notably, Robert Zubrin questioned both the ethics and the purpose of plunking a station in lunar orbit. He mentioned that, if NASA is going to build a station in the vicinity of the Moon, it might as well get a better bang for its buck by putting a permanent base on the lunar surface instead. This would provide better shielding against radiation and put astronaut crews in a better position to do real science. Could it be that NASA wants to use its crews as guinea pigs to test the effects of radiation on astronauts on a long-term mission outside Earth’s magnetosphere?
In an op-ed for the National Review, he blasted such a thing as “a form of medical research for which a number of Nazi doctors were hanged at Nuremberg.”
Former astronaut Terry Verts also questioned the point of having a station in lunar orbit if the ultimate goal is Mars: “[I]t will ultimately be judged as a jobs program aimed at providing work for existing programs. The gateway may be a good ‘answer’ but not to a question that needs to be answered.”
So it may not matter if Russia and the U.S. ultimately form a partnership to build a Deep Space Gateway if the public support is not there. Aerospace insiders question whether such a thing is even necessary and the public may reasonably scratch its collective head and state that the Moon is obviously not Mars. If anything, a Deep Space Gateway as currently proposed might make a good control platform for robotics and short-term manned expeditions to the Moon. But if an inexpensive mission to Mars is desirable, the Deep Space Gateway could be ditched and Robert Zubrin’s Mars Direct plan could be used instead.