- policy recommendations for the current administration -


The Gateway is the name to describe a miniature space station in lunar orbit. It would serve two purposes:
   1) As a launching off point for reusable landers to the lunar surface,
   2) Eventually as an assembled Mars craft to depart from and return to its Earth-Moon point.

It is argued that the Gateway would enable a reusable system by allowing vehicles from Earth to deliver propellant to the Gateway. Then, reusable lunar landers could refuel from the Gateway, descend to the lunar surface, and then ascend to the Gateway where it would be refueled again. In some scenarios there would be an intermediate space tug to move propellant from the Gateway to low lunar orbit (LLO) so as to minimize the amount of propellant that the lander would consume. It is also argued that, since the Gateway would be in a special (NRHO) orbit, it will allow access to more parts of the Moon than ever before. But could access to the lunar surface be achieve simply by rendezvousing in lunar orbit rather than having to pay the toll of passing through the Gateway?

The Gateway would be assembled by using the very expensive Space Launch System (SLS) to launch parts of the Gateway while also launching a capsule during crewed missions. Due to the very low flight rate of the SLS, each flight will probably cost $2 billion or so. It is true that commercial launchers will be used for some Gateway-related operations (e.g. Power & Propulsion Unit & propellant). But currently there are no plans to deliver crew to the Gateway using commercial launchers. So, the existence of the Gateway will mean the continued expenditure of $2 billion or so each year. All of this while we are spending about $3 billion each year on the International Space Station (ISS) with no end in sight.

Gateway debate
Beside the cost, another habitually ignored problem with the Gateway is that, if SpaceX's Starship succeeds as advertised, it will make the Gateway irrelevant. That is because one Starship would launch to high Earth orbit and a second, tanker Starship would launch and refuel it there. Then the first Starship would continue to the lunar surface and then launch from the Moon directly to Earth. The Starship is so designed so as to need no infrastructure whatsoever between the Earth and Moon.

Yet another problem with the Gateway is that it has never been made clear why a Gateway with depot is needed in its special NRHO. When a vehicle carrying propellant arrives at that point from Earth, why could it not just rendezvous with the lunar lander and transfer propellant directly. In a relay race, what value does a middle man add? Nothing.

The Gateway has been billed as an opportunity to continue our current ISS partnerships. Fine, but what about all of the other countries that would love to watch their own national astronauts exploring the lunar surface on behalf of their own citizens and in their own languages? If we could get an end-to-end commercial transport system from Earth to the Moon using something at the level of a Falcon Heavy, XEUS, and external drop tank then commercially-purchased, per-seat prices would be at the level that about two-thirds of the countries could afford at least one seat on a mission of lunar exploration. But, so long as the SLS-Orion-Gateway project is underway, it prevents a public-private partnership from establishing a fully commercial transport system to the lunar surface and so America will lead just a few other nations off Earth and not all nations. The opportunity lost is immense and we need to consider the impact if another nation were to eventually able to provide the astronauts of all of the other countries access to the lunar surface.

Can private space companies get to the lunar surface using their own launchers and capsules (i.e. no SLS) and by either directly landing on the surface (i.e. SpaceX) or rendezvousing crew/cargo/propellant craft with a reusable lander in lunar orbit (i.e. no Gateway)? Seriously, will the Gateway every be truly commercialized? If not, then it is ultimately unsustainable. Since lunar sustainability is a primary objective of the current Administration, shouldn't NASA request information about whether an end-to-end commercial transportation system directly to the Moon is possible?

It is here recommended that NASA take no options off the table but put out a request for information from all sources for the most cost-effective and sustainable transportation system between the Earth and Moon. In particular, could a combination of Falcon Heavy and XEUS lander with an external drop tank meet the objective of such a transportation system? This technology which we practically have now. And the commitment of the purchase of a block of Falcon Heavies could be transferred to purchases of Starship flights should that system become reality.

SLS, maybe Orion, and the Gateway may have a role for Mars if the Starship never lives up to its billing. But it is more likely than not that an end-to-end, commercial transport system could be developed for cost-effective access to the lunar surface. Our human spaceflight policy should reflect this reality by directing the SLS to the earliest possible, in-space Mars mission.

The Plan calls for direct commercial flights to the lunar surface without requiring a lunar gateway.

Next: Commercial LEO