NASA and its Russian counterpart Roscosmos have signed a joint statement indicating their willingness to work together on a future lunar space station. The document reflects the two agencies’ “common vision” to send crewed missions to explore the Solar System, but doesn’t include any firm plans or budgets and nor does it commit either party to building the space port in question.
The statement was signed at the 68th International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia, and is part of NASA’s “deep space gateway” project, announced earlier this year. This project’s goal is to “expand human presence into the Solar system” by building a space station like the ISS in lunar orbit. The station would incorporate a small habitat for astronauts, the capability to dock visiting spacecraft, and would “serve as a gateway to deep space and the lunar surface,” says NASA. The space agency says such a project is necessary for the human exploration of Mars, which it currently plans to achieve some time in the 2030s.
The cooperation agreement signed in Adelaide says NASA and Roscosmos will work together to identify “common exploration objectives” as well as develop technical standards for building docking systems and life support systems.
“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," said NASA's acting administrator Robert Lightfoot in a press release. "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."
Igor Komarov, the head of Roscosmos, was more forthcoming in his description of the agreement. According to a report from Russian news agency Interfax, Komarov suggested that the first modules for the lunar space port would be built between 2024 and 2026. He also said that the agreement gives other nations including China, India, Brazil, and South Africa the option to participate in the project, if NASA and Roscosmos approve.
At the moment, though, NASA’s plans for its deep space gateway project are just that: plans. A final agreement for developing a lunar space station will take much more work and research, and even then might never happen. Agreeing to work with international partners is only a small step for NASA — the giant leap is yet to come.