People watch the supermoon rising in Dar es Salaam on November 14, 2016. Picture: Daniel Hayduk/AFP
People watch the supermoon rising in Dar es Salaam on November 14, 2016. Picture: Daniel Hayduk/AFP

Dallas — Nasa’s goal of returning to the moon should see a major push in early 2019, when the agency awards its first contract for the lunar Gateway programme.

The Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway is Nasa’s planned "staging" area intended for studies of the moon and the deep-space environment. Eventually, it will function as a way station for astronauts travelling to and from Mars.

Nasa’s first spending for the platform will be for power and propulsion elements early in 2019, followed by habitation components, associate administrator William Gerstenmaier said on Thursday at the Space Symposium conference in Colorado Springs, Colorado. They will probably be launched moonward, in that order, starting in 2022.

The platform should be orbiting the moon in 2025, said Gerstenmaier, a Nasa veteran who oversees human exploration and operations. It will carry a four-astronaut crew on 30-day missions, he said.

The Gateway would also further Nasa’s goal of another human landing on the moon and will help determine whether water near the surface could be used to manufacture propellant for deep-space missions. The moon’s gravity could also help a spacecraft reduce the blistering speeds used for six-month voyages back-and-forth to Mars, thus facilitating re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere.

"We want to understand orbital mechanics around the moon" a little better, far from the Earth’s deep gravity well, he said. "Doing things in this region, where gravity isn’t such a big driver … is a different way of operating."

In November, Nasa selected five companies to study a high-power solar-electric propulsion system to use in deep-space missions, including the lunar platform. Future human missions will require a power system that has triple the capability of current designs.

Trips to the "gateway" will be aboard the Orion, a spacecraft being assembled by Lockheed Martin, with the service module being supplied by the European Space Agency. The Orion’s first flight, without crew, is scheduled for 2019.

"The craft will serve as the command deck when it’s docked with the platform. Development of the gateway has great momentum, and we are providing our expertise as Nasa looks to industry to bring know-how to this important effort," Lockheed said on Thursday in an e-mailed statement.

The lunar platform is based on current Nasa budgets and "doesn’t require a huge new influx of funding", Gernstenmaier said, calling realistic budget planning one of Nasa’s strategic principles for how to pioneer deep-space missions.

"It’s got fiscal realism, and it’s also adaptable," he said of the programme. "It can adapt to commercial partners. It’s not a rigid programme of one mission following another," an allusion to the Apollo programme, which famously required an aggressive schedule of flights that built off each other. As long as we view the moon as a stepping stone and not an end goal, I think we’re OK," Gernstenmaier said.

Nasa is also assessing how to continue the US presence in low-Earth orbit. The Trump administration has proposed ending US funding of the International Space Station in 2024. "We think it’s a great place to do development," Gerstenmaier said. "To do major development in the vicinity of the moon is really costly."