NASA seeks a rapid launch of a lunar lander

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This article originally appeared in the May 20, 2019 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Although NASA’s new goal of landing humans on the moon in five years may sound aggressive, most of the hardware needed to carry out that mission is already, or soon will be, under development.

The Space Launch System and Orion have been in the works for years and, despite delays, should be ready to transport astronauts to the moon by 2024. NASA is currently evaluating proposals for the first element of a now-minimized Gateway, the Power and Propulsion Element, and plans to award a contract by the summer. The only other element of that initial Gateway, a modest habitat and docking node, will likely be based on habitation module concepts several companies are currently developing.

The exception is the one component that is arguably the most essential part of a lunar landing: the lunar lander itself.

Jeff Bezos unveils a full-sized model of its Blue Moon lander May 9 at the Washington Convention center hours after the conclusion of the Satellite 2019 conference there. Credit: Blue Origin

Prior to Vice President Mike Pence’s March 26 speech announcing the 2024 lunar landing goal, NASA was slowly ramping up planning for crewed lunar landers. Earlier this year, NASA solicited proposals for studies of two lander elements, a descent stage and a transfer vehicle to move the lander from the Gateway to a low lunar orbit. Those proposals were due to NASA the day before Pence’s fateful speech.

NASA shifted gears after the speech, announcing a week later it would seek proposals for an ascent stage as well. In late April it changed its mind again: it now wanted proposals for entire lander systems — ascent stage, descent stage and transfer vehicle — with a formal solicitation expected by this summer. To meet the 2024 deadline, both the agency and industry say there’s no time to waste.

Two companies, two landers

Fortunately for NASA, there is a wide range of ideas of how to develop such landers — and how to unveil them. At one extreme was what Blue Origin did to show off its Blue Moon lunar lander. The company invited the media and other guests, from NASA officials and planetary scientists to Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt, to a ballroom at the Washington Convention Center May 9, hours after the conclusion of the Satellite 2019 conference there.

Inside the ballroom was blue mood lighting, starscapes on the walls, and a stage with a curtain across it. On that stage soon appeared company founder Jeff Bezos, who spent a half-hour talking about his vision for humanity’s future in space along with the desire to build infrastructure to enable that vision, like the New Shepard and New Glenn launch vehicles.

“The moon also needs infrastructure,” he said. “Let me show you something.” The curtain rose, revealing a full-sized model of an updated version of the Blue Moon lander the company first discussed more than two years ago. In its current iteration, Blue Moon can carry 3.6 metric tons to the lunar surface using a new rocket engine called the BE-7 the company is developing, powered by liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen.

Bezos narrated a tour of the mock-up, even using a crane-mounted camera to peer down on the top of the lander, a deck on which payloads would be mounted. He ticked off some of its technical specs, such as optical communications for gigabit data rates and terrain relative navigation for precise landings. “This is an incredible vehicle,” he said, “and it’s going to the moon.”

When Blue Origin first started discussing Blue Moon, they described it as a cargo lander only, and the version on display was designed for just that. However, the company also has a larger version of the lander with “stretched” propellant tanks capable of taking 6.5 tons of cargo to the surface. In his presentation, Bezos showed an illustration of an ascent stage on top of the lander for carrying astronauts. Another illustration featured that larger lander with an ascent stage on the moon, with astronauts walking on the surface nearby.

A company official, speaking on background after the event, confirmed that Blue Origin is planning to develop its own ascent stage for Blue Moon. The company foresees having the initial descent stage ready to fly in 2023, with the stretched version, along with the ascent stage, tested and ready to carry astronauts in 2024.

Bezos endorsed the 2024 deadline and suggested that it could meet it because of the head start it had on Blue Moon. “I love this. It’s the right thing to do,” he said of the 2024 goal announced in Pence’s speech. “We can help meet that timeline, but only because we started three years ago.”

This illustration is Lockheed Martin’s concept of a two-stage crewed lunar lander that NASA could use to go to the surface of the moon. The accent module is derived from the Orion spacecraft to ensure quicker development. Credit: Lockheed Martin

About a month before Bezos unveiled his full-sized Blue Moon mock-up, Lockheed Martin discussed its own concepts for lunar landers. In a small conference room at the 35th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs April 10, company officials, without the benefit of special guests or full-sized mockups, talked about how they planned to leverage Orion technology for a 2024 lunar lander.

The concept they presented was not their first lunar lander idea. Six months earlier, they described a giant single-stage reusable lunar lander that could carry four people and operate for two weeks on the surface. The rush to 2024, though, superseded that more ambitious design for a smaller two-stage lander that could be built quickly.

“We looked at what’s the fastest we could go,” said Tim Cichan, space exploration architect at Lockheed Martin, and concluded a two-stage lander could be ready by 2024. But, he added, “It’s going to be a challenge.”

The descent stage is based on concepts Lockheed Martin submitted to NASA in March in the call for proposals for descent stages, about which the company offered few details. The upper stage would make extensive use of elements of Orion, including the human-rated pressure vessel and a build-to-print version of the propulsion system for Orion’s service module.

The lander is part of an overall architecture very close to what NASA has since described for achieving the 2024 lunar landing, including the development of a minimal Gateway. The lander would be launched to the Gateway on commercial rockets, with the crew to follow on an SLS/Orion mission.

While Lockheed’s lander makes use of Orion technology, it still requires time to build. Based on the schedules for producing Orion capsules, Rob Chambers, director of human spaceflight strategy and business development at Lockheed Martin, noted it takes about four years from when the company starts production on an Orion spacecraft to when it’s ready for launch.

That means that work needs to start on the lander by early 2020 so it can launch to the Gateway in early 2024 to support a landing later in the year. “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. “We need to be bending metal next year.”

How to buy a lunar lander

The accelerated goal for returning humans to the moon not only shapes how the landers will be designed but also how they will be acquired. Prior to Pence’s speech, NASA envisioned companies developing the three elements of the lander separately, with NASA overseeing the overall architecture and integrating the components.

“Initially we thought we’d keep it as three pieces and NASA would integrate them,” NASA human spaceflight chief Bill Gerstenmaier said at a town hall meeting at NASA Headquarters May 14. “Then we thought, nope, for speed it’s better that we let the commercial sector do that.” Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

With the new 2024 deadline, NASA plans to cede more control to industry. The revised solicitation for lunar landers will request integrated concepts, giving companies the flexibility to procure alternative approaches rather than NASA’s original three-stage lander concept.

“Initially we thought we’d keep it as three pieces and NASA would integrate them,” Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said at a town hall meeting at NASA Headquarters May 14. “Then we thought, nope, for speed it’s better that we let the commercial sector do that.” Doing so, he added, gives companies the flexibility to come up with a design that meets NASA’s objectives and schedule.

NASA is also likely to depart from a conventional cost-plus contract for the lunar lander. “We would, in essence, be buying a service to take our astronauts from the Gateway down to the moon and back,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine at the town hall. “We’re looking to those service providers to create the absolute best ideas that they have.”

That town hall took place a day after the White House released its budget amendment for NASA, seeking $1.6 billion in additional funding for NASA in 2020. Of that total, $1 billion would go toward lunar lander development, specifically “an integrated commercial lunar lander.”

Gerstenmaier said at the town hall meeting he’d like to have the funding in place as soon as possible after the fiscal year starts Oct. 1 so “we can start laying in place the contracts that actually start building hardware that gives us a lander.”

That could be difficult, since NASA is likely to start the fiscal year on a continuing resolution (CR) that keeps the agency at 2019 funding levels and prevents the start of new programs. Bridenstine, speaking May 14 at the Humans to Mars Summit, said there may be “opportunities” to include language in any CR giving NASA the flexibility to start lunar lander and related projects. “But that goes well above my pay grade,” he added.

NASA announced May 16 that it selected 11 companies — including Blue Origin and Lockheed Martin — to design descent modules and transfer stages, based on the proposals those companies submitted back in March. The awards, for studies and prototype hardware, have a total value of only $45.5 million, with companies expected to contribute about 20 percent of the costs.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, speaking May 14 at the Humans to Mars Summit, said there may be “opportunities” to include language in a stop-gap spending bill giving NASA the flexibility to start lunar lander and related projects. “But that goes well above my pay grade,” he added. Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

NASA used the announcement to emphasize that buying lunar landers would not be business as usual. “To accelerate our return to the moon, we are challenging our traditional ways of doing business,” said Marshall Smith, director for human lunar exploration program at NASA Headquarters. “We will streamline everything from procurement to partnerships to hardware development and even operations.”

Testifying before the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee May 8, Gerstenmaier said the approach NASA uses for crewed landers may depend on how well companies do with smaller robotic landers through the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program.

“Depending on how well that works,” he said, “we can get a chance to judge how ready industry is to go take on the challenges of human-class landers.”

To meet the 2024 deadline, though, NASA may have no other option than to give industry that challenge of building the spacecraft that will land astronauts on the moon.