In order to land astronauts on the Moon by 2024 under the Artemis program, NASA needs to get a jump start on the development of crew-rated lunar landers.
According to an announcement issued by the space agency, this would start with initial studies through the agency’s Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) contracts.
“To accelerate our return to the Moon, we are challenging our traditional ways of doing business,” Marshall Smith, director for human lunar exploration programs at NASA Headquarters, said in a news release. “We will streamline everything from procurement to partnerships to hardware development and even operations. Our team is excited to get back to the Moon quickly as possible, and our public/private partnerships to study human landing systems are an important step in that process.”
A total of $45.5 million is being awarded to 11 companies, each requiring to contribute at least 20 percent of the total projected cost, NASA stated. The companies are expected to spend the next six months studying and developing prototypes.
Right now, NASA is envisioning a three-stage human landing system: a transfer stage to get the system from a highly-elliptical orbit (where a Lunar Gateway would be positioned) around the Moon, to a low-Lunar orbit. The other two stage’s include a descent stage to land on the Moon, and an ascent stage to return to the Gateway.
At least two of these pieces, the transfer vehicle and ascent vehicle, are expected to be refueled and reused. As such other items being studied include refueling concepts.
According to the agency, the partnership is designed to reduce the costs to U.S. taxpayers and encourage “early private investments in the lunar economy.”
NASA provided the following list of awardees:
- Aerojet Rocketdyne – Canoga Park, California
- One transfer vehicle study
- Blue Origin – Kent, Washington
- One descent element study, one transfer vehicle study, and one transfer vehicle prototype
- Boeing – Houston
- One descent element study, two descent element prototypes, one transfer vehicle study, one transfer vehicle prototype, one refueling element study, and one refueling element prototype
- Dynetics – Huntsville, Alabama
- One descent element study and five descent element prototypes
- Lockheed Martin – Littleton, Colorado
- One descent element study, four descent element prototypes, one transfer vehicle study, and one refueling element study
- Masten Space Systems – Mojave, California
- One descent element prototype
- Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems – Dulles, Virginia
- One descent element study, four descent element prototypes, one refueling element study, and one refueling element prototype
- OrbitBeyond – Edison, New Jersey
- Two refueling element prototypes
- Sierra Nevada Corporation, Louisville, Colorado, and Madison, Wisconsin
- One descent element study, one descent element prototype, one transfer vehicle study, one transfer vehicle prototype, and one refueling element study
- SpaceX – Hawthorne, California
- One descent element study
- SSL – Palo Alto, California
- One refueling element study and one refueling element prototype
In a bid to kickstart development as quickly as possible, NASA stated it is “invoking undefinitized contract actions,” which it says would allow the agency to authorize its partners to start some work while negotiations toward the contract award continue in parallel.
“We’re taking major steps to begin development as quickly as possible, including invoking a NextSTEP option that allows our partners to begin work while we’re still negotiating,” said Greg Chavers, human landing system formulation manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, in a NASA news release. “We’re keen to collect early industry feedback about our human landing system requirements, and the undefinitized contract action will help us do that.”
The mission plan
NASA’s newly-named Artemis (the goddess of the Moon and sister to the god Apollo in Greek mythology) program needs at least $1.6 billion in additional funding over the president’s initial fiscal year 2020 budget request of $21 billion. Additional increases would also be needed in 2021 and 2022. An exact number is not yet known.
Most of the FY 2020 increase is expected to go toward the development of crew-rated lunar landers, likely a follow-on to this particular NextSTEP contract.
The current plan calls for at least one multi-stage crew-rated lunar lander system to be in place at a scaled-down Lunar Gateway stationed in lunar orbit by 2024.
If a two-module gateway is included, at least five commercial launches would be required to set the stage for astronauts to return to the Moon in 2024.
In the meantime, NASA and contractors Boeing and Lockheed Martin are working to finish developing their Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft, respectively.
As of now, the first launch of the system, Artemis 1 (formerly Exploration Mission 1), is expected to launch no earlier than late 2020 or early 2021. It would involve an uncrewed mission around the Moon.
Artemis 2 is then expected to send a crew of four on a free-return trajectory around the Moon in 2022.
Finally, Artemis 3 is expected to fly a four-person crew to dock with the Lunar Gateway, transfer to a lunar lander, and fly to the Moon’s surface.
At the conclusion of that mission, the crew is expected to use the ascent vehicle piece of the lander system to return to the Gateway before boarding Orion for the trip home.
From there, NASA is planning to continue lunar landings, making the Artemis program sustainable by 2028.
According to NASA, all of this falls under President Trump’s Space Policy Directive-1, which calls for the agency to return astronauts to the lunar surface with commercial and international partners and utilize the resources of the Moon to make it sustainable.
Retiring political risk
The biggest hurdle now, according to NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, is the retirement of political risk. In order for the agency to move further with the Artemis program, it needs the additional funding, which has to be approved by Congress.
As of right now, support for the accelerated program is mixed, in particular because of the proposed funding source for the additional $1.6 billion in the amended budget request: the $9 billion surplus in the Federal Pell Grant program, which provides tuition aid to low-income students.
Several democratic representatives in the House have already opposed this source.
Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, a democrat from Texas, said in a May 15 statement that she would reserve judgement on the overall program until a more concrete budget is provided.
Johnson said she doesn’t believe NASA’s exploration program should be funded through the Pell Grant program as getting to the Moon will “take more scientists and engineers, not fewer.”
Additionally, on May 16, the House Appropriations Committee released a spending bill that would increase NASA budget by $1.3 billion over the president’s initial request. However, much of that would go toward an increased science budget with Lunar Gateway development and lunar lander research slashed by $618 million—essentially ignoring the president’s request.
There is still a long process before NASA gets a final FY 2020 budget, including passage through the full House of Representatives as well as the Senate before getting the president’s signature.
Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a blog about the International Space Station, called Orbital Velocity. He met with members of the SpaceFlight Insider team during the flight of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 551 rocket with the MUOS-4 satellite. Richardson joined our team shortly thereafter. His passion for space ignited when he watched Space Shuttle Discovery launch into space Oct. 29, 1998. Today, this fervor has accelerated toward orbit and shows no signs of slowing down. After dabbling in math and engineering courses in college, he soon realized his true calling was communicating to others about space. Since joining SpaceFlight Insider in 2015, Richardson has worked to increase the quality of our content, eventually becoming our managing editor. @TheSpaceWriter