Phase 1 Gateway Lockheed Martin
Lockheed Martin's approach involves using Orion and a scaled-down Gateway, as well as development of a two-stage lunar lander. Credit: Lockheed Martin

COLORADO SPRINGS — Lockheed Martin says it has developed an approach to achieving the goal of landing humans on the south pole of the moon by 2024, but warns that construction of essential hardware would have to start soon to meet that deadline.

In a briefing at the 35th Space Symposium here April 10, company officials said they can make extensive use of existing hardware to develop components like a scaled-down version of the lunar Gateway and a two-stage lunar lander on an accelerated schedule.

While many details have yet to be worked out, the basic elements of the plan, Lockheed argues, demonstrates that the ability to meet the 2024 deadline established March 26 by Vice President Mike Pence in a National Space Council speech is at least technically feasible, if challenging.

“This isn’t the only way to accomplish this,” said Rob Chambers, director of human spaceflight strategy and business development at Lockheed Martin. He called the approach the company described an “existence proof” that the overall goal is feasible. “The objective here is to lay out an architecture that moves the needle from ‘is this possible’ to ‘okay, how do we do it best?’”

Lockheed’s plan would diverge from NASA’s old approach after Exploration Mission (EM) 1, an uncrewed test of the Orion spacecraft launched by the Space Launch System in 2020. The company proposes launching a “Phase 1” Gateway in 2022 consisting of just the Power and Propulsion Element (PPE) and a small habitation module with docking ports. NASA expects to issue awards for the PPE in May, while the habitation module could be adapted from ongoing studies that are part of NASA’s Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships, or NextSTEP, program.

That would be followed by EM-2, the first crewed Orion flight. While NASA’s current architecture would have that mission go on a “free return” trajectory around the moon, in this plan the Orion would fly to and dock with the Gateway to check out its systems.

That would require modifying the Orion spacecraft for that mission to incorporate a docking system. “It looks credible and sensible that we could add the docking to EM-2,” Chambers said. “It would allow us to test out operations from the Gateway.”

The Lockheed Martin proposal calls for the development of a two-stage lunar lander with ascent and descent stages. The descent stage would be developed from concepts NASA solicited earlier this year through another part of the NextSTEP program. The ascent stage makes use of Orion components, such the pressure vessel, and a “built-to-print” version of the propulsion system for the Orion service module.

The two lander stages would launch separately on commercial launch vehicles to the Gateway by early 2024, where they would be mated. Tim Cichan, space exploration architect at Lockheed Martin, said an alternative approach would be to launch them together on a single SLS.

In 2024, NASA would launch EM-3, an Orion carrying four astronauts to the Gateway. Some of all of them would board the lander — Cichan said the company is still studying how many people the lander can support — and go to the lunar surface. Those astronauts would likely spend several days in the vicinity of the lunar south pole before launching on the ascent module back to the Gateway, and then board Orion for the trip home.

While Lockheed Martin discussed the plan just 15 days after Pence’s speech, work on the architecture presented started months ago. “We looked at what’s the fastest we could go,” Cichan said, which found that it could be done by 2024. However, he warned, “It’s going to be a challenge.”

To achieve the 2024 deadline, work on lander hardware would have to start next year, Chambers said. “We need to be bending metal next year, which means tooling already has to be in house, and I hope somebody ordered a bunch of aluminum,” he said.

He compared its development schedule to the Orion spacecraft for EM-3, which NASA’s schedules currently call for being ready for launch in August 2023. Work on the crew module will start this fall to meet that date, he said. The lander ascent stage, derived from Orion, would need to start production by early 2020 to be ready for launch in early 2024, which would give it enough time to be ready for a mission to the lunar surface before the end of 2024.

“By the end of this year there needs to be materials starting to show up and folks on contract to begin building to print what exists today that we can safely leverage,” he said.

The company declined to estimate how much this accelerated approach would cost, in part because it depends on a number of factors. However, Chambers said it would require funding above earlier budget projections.

“We’ve all agreed it’s not free,” he said. “The current program of record can’t be turned into a crewed landing in 2024 without some kind of additional resources for the human exploration activity.”

NASA has also declined to estimate how much an accelerated program, be it like Lockheed’s concept or an alternative architecture, would cost. Industry sources during the symposium estimated NASA would need perhaps $3–5 billion more per year to achieve a landing by 2024, but for now NASA is not offering any figures as it works on an amendment to its fiscal year 2020 budget proposal.

“We need to be ready by next week to have a consensus administration position on that,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told reporters at the Space Symposium April 9. That work will involve coordination with the Office of Management and Budget and the staff of the National Space Council before delivering a proposal to Congress. “Until we get to that point I don’t want to put any numbers on the table.”

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...