Lockheed Martin lunar lander
Lockheed Martin's proposed lunar lander could carry four people and a metric ton of cargo to the lunar surface for stays of up to two weeks. Credit: Lockheed Martin

BREMEN, Germany — As NASA gears up to support work on lunar lander designs, Lockheed Martin released details Oct. 3 about a proposed reusable human lunar lander that leverages technology used on the Orion spacecraft and concepts that could later be used for missions to Mars.

The lander, presented during a session of the 69th International Astronautical Congress here, is a single-stage vehicle using liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellants that could transport a crew of four and a metric ton of cargo for stays of up to two weeks on the lunar surface.

The lander is based on a design the company previously presented last year as part of its Mars Base Camp architecture for landing on the surface of Mars. Tim Cichan, space exploration architect at Lockheed Martin, described the lunar lander as a “precursor vehicle” to that Mars design that could test out many of the technologies needed for later Mars missions.

“It’s very clearly right on that development path for the Mars Base Camp lander,” he said in an interview. “We’ll learn almost everything we need to learn on the moon” with the exception of flying in an atmosphere.

The concept of operations for the lander involves creating a propellant depot in lunar orbit by transporting water there, either from Earth or extracted from the lunar surface, and converting it to liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen. The lander would travel to the depot to fill up, then transit to the Gateway to pick up crew and cargo before heading to the lunar surface. The lander could spend up to two weeks to the lunar surface before lifting off and heading back to the Gateway.

By operating from the Gateway, the lander can access virtually any part of the lunar surface. “The nice thing about having an on-orbit refuelable system that doesn’t require in situ resource utilization on the surface initially is that you can do sortie missions sustainably,” said Lockheed Martin’s Rob Chambers.

The lander would have a dry mass of 22 metric tons, or 62 metric tons when fully fueled. While the lander is half the height of the earlier Mars concept, the spacecraft is still 14 meters tall. A “simple elevator platform” would be used by crews to descent from the crew cabin at the top of the lander to the surface.

That crew cabin will be based heavily on Lockheed Martin’s work on Orion. “The crew cabin is very much Orion inside,” Cichan said. “We are using the same displays, avionics, life support systems in that crew cabin.”

Cichan described the design presented at the conference as at the “conceptual” level. “Because it’s based on lots of heritage equipment, including a lot of Orion heritage,” he said, “it holds together pretty well.”

One decision the company hasn’t made is on the lander’s propulsion system, other than the use of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, the only propellant combination the company believes can make a single-stage reusable lander feasible. Cichan said either Aerojet Rocketdyne’s RL10 or Blue Origin’s BE-3 could be used on this system, which requires engines to be deeply throttable to land efficiently.

The announcement comes as NASA is laying the groundwork for future lunar lander development. The agency issued a request for information earlier this year for medium-class to “human-scale” lander concepts, followed by a concept called Flexible Lunar Explorer, or FLEx, landers. The agency plans to solicit proposals for studies of FLEx landers as part of its Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) program.

“What we’ve been doing has been maturing this directly towards what it would mean for some of these early landers that NASA wants to,” Chambers said.

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...