Sun. Jul 5th, 2020

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Aerospace Companies Compete to Build Lunar Landers for NASA’s Project Artemis

Of course, nothing much will work if Congress doesn’t approve the US $20 to $30 billion NASA says Artemis could cost. Ask around the space community and people will say a 2024 landing is “aspirational.”

Nevertheless, aerospace companies—including Blue Origin, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, SpaceX, and many others—are hard at work. The procurement process is a closed one; the agency will not say how many proposals it has received or what they include. But at one point, NASA says, it counted 64 “interested parties” asking about building the HLS or components for it.

“We’re relying on competition to help make this cost-effective,” says Nantel Suzuki, the program executive for the HLS at NASA. “To the extent the contractors can find efficiencies, they’ll reap the benefits.”

Lunar Logistics

The contenders are hemmed in, though, by two realities:

First, when your marching orders are to get to the moon as quickly as possible, everything except that goal goes out the window. NASA has called for a “sustainable” lunar program, one that would use the moon as a steppingstone to a future Mars mission. It had said it hoped to have four astronauts spend 30 Earth days at a time near the moon’s south pole, mining fuel from the water ice found there. But with the 2024 deadline, the agency says it will be happy if, on the first mission, two astronauts stay for a week.

Second, the mission will have to make use of equipment that’s already in the works, if only because building anything new would use precious time. NASA is committed to launching astronauts on its giant Space Launch System rocket, or SLS, and fly them to high lunar orbit in its Orion spacecraft, where they will rendezvous with the waiting lander. But neither vehicle has yet flown after a decade’s development. And neither was specifically designed for lunar flight.

Orion, for example, carries 35 percent less fuel than Apollo did, which means it can only produce enough power to reach a high orbit around the moon (where less energy is needed to slow a vehicle arriving from Earth). To compensate, NASA plans to put a small space station there called the Gateway, which means a lander may need an entire extra section—a so-called transfer stage—to get close to the lunar surface before its descent engines can take over. That makes an already-complicated mission even more so.

“You want to make it as simple as you can make it,” says Douglas A. Cooke, a NASA veteran who is now an independent aerospace consultant. “The probability of overall mission success is dependent on the probabilities of every critical operation or launch working, and the fewer of those you have, the more likely you’re going to succeed.”

A Question of Strategy

Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman were each designing lunar landers to be ready for astronauts by 2028—but faced with the new deadline, they said in October they would join forces. In their combined plan, Blue Origin will oversee the project and build the vehicle’s descent stage based on its uncrewed Blue Moon lander. Lockheed Martin will build the ascent stage to carry astronauts. Northrop Grumman will supply the transfer stage (think of it as a booster, perhaps bolted to the base of the descent stage), and Draper Laboratory in Massachusetts will handle software for navigation and landing.

How many rockets would be required to get all the components into space? NASA and others say none of the currently available commercial launchers is powerful enough to get a three-part lunar lander to the moon in one piece—so the pieces might have to be launched separately and assembled when they reach lunar orbit. Blue Origin is developing a heavy-lift rocket called New Glenn, but hasn’t said how many such rockets it might need for Artemis, or whether it might use rockets other than its own.

Boeing says it has proposed a mission with the fewest possible steps—more brute force, less complexity. It would launch its lander—both descent and ascent stages—together on an SLS rocket with an enlarged upper stage. Skip the transfer vehicle and, for that matter, skip the Gateway for at least the first flight. Borrow systems from other vehicles you’ve built, such as the International Space Station and the Starliner orbital capsule.

“If you’re really going to accelerate this and do it in ’24, you really need to leverage existing systems that have a lot of flight heritage, or will have flight heritage in the near future,” says Peter McGrath, director of marketing for Boeing’s space exploration division.

SpaceX will not say publicly whether it submitted a proposal, but it is already at work on a vehicle called Starship, and has said that as part of a separate project, it hopes to make an uncrewed lunar landing with it by 2022.

That date is—here’s the word again—“aspirational,” but SpaceX’s president, Gwynne Shotwell, says Starship was conceived to carry astronauts, and eventually will. “Almost all of our technology will be relevant to Artemis,” she said in October at a session of the International Astronautical Congress.

Who will win NASA’s favor? Probably more than one contender. “If our budget supports it, we’d like to take two companies all the way, with two independent landers, all the way through the development phase and the demonstration,” says NASA’s Suzuki. “We could take two of them all the way to flight in 2024.”

The countdown has begun, and everyone seems to believe it will be tight.

“It’s a good goal. I think it’s challenging the bureaucracy at NASA to do things,” said Cooke, the NASA veteran. “I definitely think it’s worth doing, and if they miss it by a year, then it’s still worth doing.”