Lunar Gateway: the next giant leap for man

17 December 2019

Interview with 

Sue Horne, UK Space Agency

ASTRONAUT-ON-MOON

An astronaut standing on the Moon's surface

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The European Space Agency received this bumper €40 billion budget, so what are they going to spend it on? Sue Horne is head of space exploration for the UK Space Agency, and she joined Chris Smith and Adam Murphy...

Sue - Well, for government funding, what we're looking at is putting in place the technologies we need to go onto Mars. It's not about a sustained lunar base that will be looked at by commercial entities who are thinking about using the lunar resources. So, we need to develop technologies to sustain astronauts for the long journey to Mars and back, to be able to use the resources at hand to sustain those astronauts and to be able to protect our astronauts from the radiation, the solar wind.

Adam - Now we heard other people mention across the show this idea of the Lunar Gateway, what is that? What does it look like?

Sue - This is a small space station that will orbit the Moon and it makes going to the moon more sustainable, so that what you will have by 2025, 2026 is actually a shuttle going from the Gateway to the lunar surface and back. And that makes it a lot cheaper than sending a mission to the Moon and back. So you shuttle your astronauts to the space station and then to the lunar surface.

Adam - And how do you put a space station around the Moon?

Sue - Well you send it up in bits. So the first flight will be in 2021, which will send the propulsion and the power system. And then in 2022 the first habitation module will go there, and it's fitted together like we built the International Space Station above the Earth, but its going to be a lot smaller than the International Space Station.

Adam - And now, you're with the UK Space Agency. So what's the UK's involvement in these missions?

Sue - Well we are a member of the European Space Agency. We contributed 180 million pounds to the exploration program. And for that, the money actually flows back to UK industry. So we're expecting to participate in elements of the Gateway. So we're very interested in doing in the telecommunications and the refuelling element. We're also trying to develop commercial services at the Moon. So we would like a UK company to provide a data relay service from the Moon, and hopefully that will be launched in 2022. And that makes the science instruments and the elements you're going to put on the Moon cheaper because you don't have to take such heavy communication systems. All you have to do is get your communication to the satellite orbiting the Moon.

Adam - Now we've heard across the show that all of this is happening so quickly. What do you reckon the timeline is for getting to the Moon and then getting further onto Mars?

Sue - Well I think NASA has got an ambitious, challenging timescale of getting man to the Moon by 2024. They can do that. It is quite a tight schedule. It might slip a little bit, but they are intent on getting there for 2024 I think going to Mars, that's a much longer thought. We still don't know quite how to keep our astronauts safe in that 500 day journey to Mars and back. So I would think, personally, I think it's about 2050, Some people are saying 2030 but I think that's far too soon. We won't have fully tested out the technologies on the Moon by then.

Chris - If I may come in there, Sue. What's the anticipated lifetime for this gateway orbiter that will be around the Moon?

Sue - That's an interesting question. Space missions always last longer than originally anticipated. I used to work on a mission called Cluster, which was supposed to finish after two years, and that was launched early two thousands and is still going. The International Space Station was supposed to finish a couple of years ago and is still going strong, and I expect it to go be going till 2030. So the Gateway, I believe the initial plans are at least till 2030, but it could be a lot longer than that. We build very sound systems because of the harsh environments. So it could be going for some time.

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