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Draper developing technologies for lunar landings

Draper Artemis-7 lander concept. Credit: Draper

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — A half-century after developing the computers that guided the Apollo missions to the moon, Draper is working on technologies that it says can enable new human and robotic missions to the moon in the near future.

In the 1960s, the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory had a NASA contract to develop the Apollo Guidance Computer, one of the first portable digital computers. It was used on the command and lunar modules and helped make possible the six successful lunar landings from 1969 through 1972.

The lab, later spun out as an independent non-profit called Draper, is involved in several ways in NASA’s new plans to return humans to the moon by 2024, leveraging that heritage along with new technologies to enable new mission to the moon.

“While we recognize and celebrate what happened 50 years ago, that’s not the point,” said Kaigham J. Gabriel, president and chief executive of Draper, at a media tour of the lab July 8. “The point is, what are we going to do in the next 50 years?”

Draper is already involved with elements of NASA’s exploration programs. Seamus Tuohy, principal director of space systems at Draper, said the lab is providing fault-tolerant computers and software for the Space Launch System, and guidance, navigation and control software for the Orion spacecraft.

Draper is among the nine companies and organizations that received awards from NASA last November for the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. Draper was not selected, though, for the first round of flight contracts in May, with the agency instead selecting landers from Astrobotic, Intuitive Machines and OrbitBeyond.

Tuohy said NASA made those initial awards based on price. “There was a whole group of people under $100 million, and a whole group of people over $100 million. The three that were under $100 million won,” he said.

Draper plans to pursue additional CLPS opportunities, with the next competition expected in by early fall. “We’re looking forward to bidding the next time. We’re not discouraged at all,” he said, adding the company didn’t plan to make major changes in its design.

Draper is partnered with ispace, a Japanese company developing commercial lunar landers. For the CLPS program, which requires landers to be manufactured in the United States, General Atomics will build the landers based on the ispace design.

The commercial interest in the landers comes from several sources, Tuohy said. Some want to demonstrate technologies on those missions, while others are interested in studying potential resources on the moon. There are, in addition, government agencies outside the United States interested in flying payloads on those landers for science. “All of those avenues are being explored by ispace,” he said.

Draper is also looking at technologies like vision-aided inertial navigation that could be used on future human lunar landers. That includes the ability to do autonomous landings that could enable exploration of areas that couldn’t otherwise be accessed, particularly at the lunar poles. “There are locations at that portion of the moon that have never seen sunlight,” Tuohy said. “We may potentially be landing in shadow, so you need more technologies than the human eye to do that.”

Those technologies would be ready to support a 2024 landing, he said. “We didn’t just start thinking about this last year,” he said, with some of that work dating back 15 years. “We think we have matured the technology needed to do autonomous, but safe and routine, landings on the moon by 2024.”

“Aggressive schedules don’t scare us,” Gabriel said. The bigger concern, he noted, is goals that shift. “One of the things that was powerful about the Apollo missions was that President Kennedy laid out a very specific, simple objective: man on the moon by the end of the decade. There was a lot of detail, a lot of work, a lot of unknowns, but the objective was never in question.”

Gabriel recalled what the lab’s founder, Charles Stark “Doc” Draper, said in the 1960s when NASA asked him when he would have the Apollo Guidance Computer ready: “He said, ‘When you need it.’”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...