As America prepares for the arrival of a new administration in the White House and awaits its impact on NASA’s plan to return humans to the Moon later this decade, Northrop Grumman Corp. has completed its Preliminary Design Review (PDR) for the Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO) module, the intended principal living quarters for astronauts aboard the lunar-circling Gateway.
Based in design upon the Bethpage, N.Y.-headquartered firm’s Cygnus pressurized spacecraft—which has staged 14 successful cargo-delivery missions to the International Space Station (ISS) between September 2013 and last month—HALO will be launched pre-integrated with the Gateway’s Power and Propulsion Element (PPE) in the fall of 2023. It will afford the small, Moon-orbiting space station with living quarters for up to four astronauts and is expected to be about the same size as a small studio apartment.
“By basing the HALO module on Cygnus, we are able to deliver an affordable and reliable flight-proven product on an accelerated timeline,” said Steve Krein, vice president for civil and commercial satellites at Northrop Grumman. “Maturing HALO through its preliminary design marks a major milestone in the module’s production.”
And the timeline that HALO has followed from conception to its (as-yet-unannounced) launch provider in 2023 is nothing if not “accelerated”. Through Dulles, Va.-based Orbital ATK, whose acquisition by Northrop Grumman was completed in 2018, the firm’s involvement with the Gateway has already spanned several years.
In early 2015, Orbital ATK was one of a group of companies selected by NASA through the initial Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) public-private partnership to develop early habitat concepts and technologies for what was then known as the Deep Space Habitat (DSH). A year later, Orbital ATK was picked as one of seven industrial partners for funding under Appendix A of the second-phase NextSTEP-2 to develop ground prototypes and conceptual studies for the DSH. This included integrated systems testing, human factors and operations testing and definition of overall systems functionality.
In May 2019, NASA selected Maxar Technologies—formerly Space Systems/Loral (SS/L)—for a maximum $375 million contract to build the Gateway’s first element, the PPE, which NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine described as “the cornerstone” of the agency’s effort to develop a sustainable and reusable human presence “on and around the Moon” with the Artemis program. Initially targeted to fly in 2022, the PPE is equipped with communications and maneuvering capabilities, as well as a high-powered, 60-kilowatt Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) system.
Earlier this year, NASA announced that the PPE and HALO will be pre-integrated and launch together atop a commercial booster no earlier than November 2023. As well as saving NASA the cost of an extra rocket, this move is expected to reduce the risks of sending two large vehicles under their own steam into a Near-Rectilinear Halo Orbit (NRHO) around the Moon, then autonomously docking them together. This highly complex orbit will send the Gateway around our nearest celestial neighbor once every seven days, flying within 1,900 miles (3,000 km) of the north pole at closest approach and as far as 43,000 miles (70,000 km) over the south pole at its furthest.
“This is a recent update to the agency’s plans to build a sustainable presence on the Moon as part of the Artemis program,” NASA reported. “The decision to integrate the elements on the ground prior to launch—an outcome of the agency’s program status assessment—reduces both cost and technical risks, while enhancing the likelihood of mission success by eliminating the need for the two elements to dock in the orbit around the Moon where the Gateway will operate.”
“The new plan to integrate the two elements of Gateway demonstrates the capabilities of the agency and our partners to be flexible and reassess plans as needed,” said Dan Hartman, NASA’s Gateway program manager at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas. “By launching the elements together, we’re able to significantly reduce Gateway’s risk profile and increase cost effectiveness.”
In June 2020, contracts worth $187 million were awarded to Northrop Grumman to fund the initial development of HALO through to its PDR stage. Equipped with radial docking ports, body-mounted radiators, batteries and communications equipment, HALO will also afford early Artemis crews a functional pressurized volume capable of sustaining four people in NRHO around the Moon for up to 30 days.
Under the terms of the initial contract, details of the vehicle’s design were assessed to ensure that it is safe, reliable for flight and meets all NASA requirements. It enabled Northrop Grumman to finalize the design of HALO’s systems and subsystems and begin the process of awarding initial subcontracts for long-lead-time hardware elements. With the completion of the PDR, a key checkpoint in HALO’s design lifecycle has now been passed, ahead of hardware manufacturing.
Additional contract actions are expected in the near future for Northrop Grumman to move into full-scale fabrication and assembly of HALO for integration with PPE. And NASA’s Launch Services Program (LSP) is expected to soon announce a launch provider for the combined spacecraft.
But with the inauguration of the new Biden-Harris administration in January, their plan for NASA and the bold goal of returning humans to the lunar surface by 2024 remains unclear. Earlier this year, Mr. Bridenstine noted that it was imperative for the full $3.2 billion to be awarded to the Human Landing System (HLS) program in order to achieve the Trump Administration’s March 2019 pledge to achieve boots on the Moon by mid-decade. The favorable stance of the Biden-Harris platform towards climate change and a reinvigorated program of Earth science is well known, but the precise fiscal impact that this may have on the Gateway elements is still to be seen.