Rising political tensions between Washington and Moscow don't appear be jeopardizing NASA's goals to orbit Mars by the 2030s. At the 68th International Astronautical Congress in Australia, the U.S. and Russia agreed to support research on the so-called "deep space gateway" mission--a program instrumental in the journey to Mars.
Their newfound partnership may be anything but set in stone, but it suggests a commitment to leave space exploration out of the political sphere.
"While the deep space gateway is still in concept formulation, NASA is pleased to see growing international interest in moving into cislunar space as the next step for advancing human space exploration. Statements such as this one signed with Roscosmos show the gateway concept as an enabler to the kind of exploration architecture that is affordable and sustainable."
Cheryl Warner, NASA's Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Mission Directorate, clarified that the recently signed agreement doesn't necessarily mean that the U.S. and Russia are moving forward with the mission, but she says it does mean that both countries are looking into the possibility of cooperating in the future.
She continued, "Both agencies, as well as other International Space Station partners, see the gateway as a strategic component of human space exploration architecture that warrants additional study. NASA has already engaged industry partners in gateway concept studies. Roscosmos and other space station partner agencies are preparing to do the same."
Though many details surrounding the deep space gateway mission remain uncertain, NASA has provided a blueprint outline of how it plans on expanding human presence beyond the moon. That, according to NASA, is only possibly through the construction of the first ever lunar space station, which would help support crews and their spacecraft perform longer missions. The "gateway" would feature a power bus, a small habitat to extend crew time, docking capability, an airlock, and serviced by modules to enable field research.
But, NASA says further space exploration will likely be dependent on its new NASA's new Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and the Orion space capsule. Described by the space agency as the "world's most powerful rocket," the SLS is expected to "meet a variety of crew and cargo mission needs." The first integrated mission of the SLS and the Orion spacecraft is expected to occur in late 2018.
In a separate statement following the joint announcement, Roscosmos officials said that they discussed with their American counterparts the possibility of using Russian carrier rockets to help build the lunar station, adding that the bulk of the construction will begin in the mid 2020s.
"At least five countries are working on the creation of their own manned spacecraft and systems. In order to avoid problems in the future in technical cooperation, part of the standards should be unified - for the ability of different countries to work on their products and to join the international near-moon station. Part of the key standards will be formed on the basis of Russian developments," Ignor Komarov, the general director of Roscosmos State Cooperation, said. "The agreements reached open new prospects for international cooperation and expand the opportunities for using the capabilities of the Russian space industry. "
The deep space gateway is part of NASA's pledge to orbit Mars by the 2030s.
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