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NASA wants speedy development of commercial lunar landers

An illustration of an unpiloted commercial lander leaving a fledgling Lunar Gateway for a descent to the surface of the Moon. Image Credit: NASA

An illustration of an unpiloted commercial lander leaving a fledgling Lunar Gateway for a descent to the surface of the Moon. Image Credit: NASA

NASA emphasized speed and openness in a recent industry forum for the development of commercial lunar lander systems to get cargo and eventually humans to the Moon’s surface.

Earlier this week, the U.S. space agency put out a formal request for proposals for human-rated lunar landers with a goal of putting humans on the surface by 2028. In the near-term another program announced late last year aims to put payload on the surface for NASA even sooner: the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS).

“We’re going to go to the Moon in a way that we’ve never gone to the Moon before,” said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine in opening remarks to the Feb. 14, 2019, forum. “We’re going to go with international partners. We’re going to go with commercial partners. And here is the key element: we’re going to go sustainably.”

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine speaks at the lunar lander industry forum at NASA Headquarters in Washington where NASA met with industry representatives interested in working to develop systems to return humans to the surface of the Moon. Photo Credit: Joel Kowsky / NASA

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine speaks at the lunar lander industry forum at NASA Headquarters in Washington where NASA met with industry representatives interested in working to develop systems to return humans to the surface of the Moon. Photo Credit: Joel Kowsky / NASA

Bridenstine said NASA is going “forward” to the Moon to stay, not just leave flags and footprints only to not return for another 50 years.

“We’re going to go sustainably, to stay with landers and robots and rovers and humans,” Bridenstine said. “We’re going to put humans on the surface of the Moon. We’re going to build an architecture where we can back and forth again and again and again.”

Between Bridenstine and Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier, the agency’s approach was laid out along with a reference architecture for human-rated landers. First is CLPS, which would involve companies bidding to send payload to the surface of the Moon through their own lander systems.

In November 2018, NASA announced that nine companies were eligible to bid on the payload delivery services to the lunar surface. The first payloads for CLPS could be ready for missions by the end of 2019, however it remains to be seen when the first landings would occur.

At the same time, NASA is also wanting to work with industry to develop a reusable system to get humans to the surface, which would involve using the agency’s future Lunar Gateway.

“One of the advantages of using the Gateway as part of the architecture, is it will enable us to get to more parts of the Moon than we’ve ever been able to get to before,” Bridenstine said. “It’s going to hang out for 15 years in what we call a near-rectilinear halo orbit where it’s kind of balanced, if you will, between Earth’s gravity and the Moon’s gravity. It’s going to be in a position where it doesn’t take a lot of fuel to maintain that particular orbit.”

The proposed architecture would have three parts that could be launched, in part, by commercial rockets, refueled by commercial spacecraft, and be based at NASA's future Lunar Gateway. Image Credit: NASA

The proposed architecture would have three parts that could be launched, in part, by commercial rockets, refueled by commercial spacecraft, and be based at NASA’s future Lunar Gateway. Image Credit: NASA

The system has three parts: a descent vehicle, a transfer vehicle and an ascent stage. Only the first part is not expected to be reusable in the near-term until surface refueling becomes possible using resources on the Moon, such as water-ice near the poles.

However, the descent vehicle would likely be the first developed and tested by about 2024. By this time, the Gateway would only be partially finished with a commercially-built Power and Propulsion Element, a European-built refueling and communications module and a U.S.-built utilization module.

The descent vehicle, launched by a commercial rocket, would be docked to the utilization module on the Gateway before performing an uncrewed powered descent to the lunar surface.

An artist's illustration of a human-rated lunar lander on the surface of the Moon. Image Credit: NASA

An artist’s illustration of a human-rated lunar lander on the surface of the Moon. Image Credit: NASA

In two years the next phase could be ready: testing the full three-part system with an uncrewed lunar landing. Commercial rockets would launch the descent vehicle and a transfer vehicle to the Gateway. Meanwhile a Space Launch System rocket would send Orion with an ascent vehicle to rendezvous with the Gateway where the full lander system would be docked together.

Also at this point, at least one habitation module could be added to the Gateway as it grows. While it is not planned to be anywhere near the size of the International Space Station, it is hoped international partner agencies already working with NASA on the ISS would be interested in adding their own modules.

For the test, the transfer vehicle would lower the descent and ascent vehicles to low-Lunar orbit, undock and return to the Gateway. The descent vehicle with the ascent vehicle attached would land at a location, possibly near one of the Moon’s poles.

Once surface evaluations are completed, the ascent vehicle would launch from the descent vehicle on the Moon’s surface and directly return to the Gateway where it and the transfer vehicle would await refueling from commercial logistics spacecraft.

“We think there’s lots of big macro-level trades that need to occur between those three elements,” Gerstenmaier said. “We’re holding off on the ascent piece for a little bit because we think we can put all the human rating into the ascent vehicle. It can essentially be the rescue vehicle if something goes wrong on the way down to the surface of the Moon. You can use the ascent vehicle to get back to Gateway.”

An artist's illustration of a completed lunar Gateway flying around the Moon with a commercially-developed lunar lander. Image Credit: NASA

An artist’s illustration of a completed lunar Gateway flying around the Moon with a commercially-developed lunar lander. Image Credit: NASA

Gerstenmaier said the ascent vehicle might be developed using a more traditional approach where more NASA requirements are placed on the contractor. But the descent stage is hoped to be “very open” and “very amenable” to industry standards and a “much more open architecture” in the hopes that the development could be done faster. He said those details would be finalized in the study phase.

By 2028, NASA believes it could be ready for a human landing with the system. Three more commercial rockets would be used. Two would send commercial logistic spacecraft to fuel the ascent and transfer vehicles. A third would send a new descent vehicle.

Once mated at the Gateway, an SLS with Orion and possibly an airlock module for the deep-space outpost would rendezvous and dock. The crew, a size not yet determined, would then fly down to the surface in the same way as the uncrewed test flight.

NASA Associate Administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate Bill Gerstenmaier outlining the human lander reference architecture at an Industry forum for lunar exploration. Photo Credit: Joel Kowsky / NASA

NASA Associate Administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate Bill Gerstenmaier outlining the human lander reference architecture at an Industry forum for lunar exploration. Photo Credit: Joel Kowsky / NASA

Bridenstine said all of this is being done under the banner of Space Policy Directive 1, which was signed by President Donald Trump on Dec. 11, 2017.

The policy directs the NASA administrator to “lead an innovative and sustainable program” of lunar exploration with “commercial and international partners to enable human expansion across the solar system.”

Additionally, the agency is directed to better understand the resources available on the Moon to support future exploration.

“We’re going to retire risk. We’re going to prove technology,” Bridenstine said. “Then we’re going to take as much of this as possible and replicate it at Mars.”

Both Bridenstine and Gerstenmaier said the presented outline was only a reference architecture and NASA is open to other ideas not related to the plan laid out by the agency.

Proposals are due by March 25, 2019. NASA hopes to evaluate and select several bids by May and potentially contract by July for a six-month study phase.

“With this open architecture capability—the way we do docking, the way we do data, the way we do communications—we want all of this to be wide open,” Bridenstine said. “We want it to be so wide open that anybody can participate. That’s really the ultimate objective.”

Video courtesy of NASA

 

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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

Reader Comments

Let the race begin!

I wonder what companies will to choose to develop on a human rated lander?

James Lunar Miner

“The policy directs the NASA administrator to ‘lead an innovative and sustainable program’ of lunar exploration with ‘commercial and international partners to enable human expansion across the solar system.’” – Derek Richardson

One critical area of “innovation” will probably be with super propellant efficient electric propulsion systems that use safe, dense, and super efficient Iodine as their propellant for cost effective spacecraft capable of hauling commercial Lunar Landers and cargo from Earth Orbit to Low Lunar Orbit.

Such highly economical and useful electric propulsion system powered spacecraft that use Iodine as the propellant should also offer many Space Dominance and Cold War II options in Low Earth Orbit, Cislunar Space, and across our Solar System.

Note:

“Iodine enables > 10km/s for ESPA Class Spacecraft
GTO deployment to GEO, Lunar Orbits, Near Earth Asteroids, Mars and Venus”

And, “Reduces mission life cycle cost by 30 –80%
Iodine is a solid at ambient conditions, can launch unpressurized and sit quiescent indefinitely”

From: “The iodine Satellite (iSAT)”
By John Dankanich 5/12/2015
At: https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/20150016176.pdf

James Lunar Miner

Iodine used as a propellant for reusable and super propellant efficient (and super high Isp) electric propulsion powered spacecraft should enable cost effective and environmentally benign and sustainable transportation from Low Earth Orbit to Low Lunar Orbit.

When such Iodine propellant electric propulsion powered spacecraft are used in conjunction with efficient and environmentally clean and green hydrogen and oxygen rocket engine powered Landers and launchers the costs and environmental damage of space transportation from Earth to the surface of the Moon should dramatically decrease.

Hydrogen can also be used as a highly efficient 900+ Isp mono-propellant for nuclear thermal rocket engines.

Note:

“It is extremely expensive to get to the moon, and not easy to break free from Earth’s gravity.”

And, “As it turns out, there is fuel on the moon in the form of water. Its elements, hydrogen and oxygen, can be used as rocket propellant, which is why many refer to water as ‘the oil of the solar system.’ Water is a valuable resource that makes the moon ‘a gas station in the sky’ and that ‘completely changes the economics’ of accessing resources on the moon, said Robert D. Richards, the co-founder and CEO of Moon Express, which is developing lunar landers.”

From: “NASA wants to get to the moon ‘as fast as possible.’ But countries like China and India are racing there, too.”
By Christian Davenport 2/14/2019
At: https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/nasa-wants-to-get-to-the-moon-as-fast-as-possible-but-countries-like-china-and-india-are-racing-there-too/2019/02/14/d2944b90-2bec-11e9-b2fc-721718903bfc_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.6c33b169ba90

James Lunar Miner

“For the test, the transfer vehicle would lower the descent and ascent vehicles to low-Lunar orbit, undock and return to the Gateway.” – Derek Richardson

Highly propellant efficient propulsion systems should be used for cost effectively powering “the transfer vehicle” and various other transfer vehicles or Space Tugs that are likely to be built in many nations and used for lunar, asteroid, and Mars missions.

Note:

“NASA’s current advanced in-space propulsion concepts include solar electric propulsion (SEP), nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP), and nuclear electric propulsion (NEP).”

And, “SEP represents a highly efficient option for reaching Mars and NEAs. SEP also provides a lunar-tug, enabling cargo transfer to and from the Earth and the Moon. SEP systems capture the Sun’s energy in extensive solar panels, potentially exceeding 7200 sq feet (~670 sq meters), almost the size of 20 school buses. Captured energy is then converted into electricity to power thrusters that are far more efficient than chemical rocket engines.

And, “Nuclear propulsion, which includes both NTP and NEP, provides an alternative to SEP. Nuclear power enables high-efficiency propulsion through electric thrusters, similar to SEP systems, or, using NTP, by superheating liquid propellants such as hydrogen, or even water.”

From: Page 24 of “Voyages
Charting the Course for Sustainable Human Space Exploration”
By John Olson, Douglas Craig, Kate Maliga, Jason Hay, Rachael Graham, Susie Johnson, Rebecca Graham, Phil Smith, Anne Simmons, Julie Williams-Byrd, Nicole Herrmann, Carie Mullins, Rebecca Graham, Phil Smith, J.D. Reeves, and Patrick Troutman
At: https://www.nasa.gov/pdf/657307main_Exploration%20Report_508_6-4-12.pdf

James Lunar Miner

The International Space Station should play a key role in propellant efficiently and cost effectively developing the Moon and the rest of Cislunar Space.

“Scientists are reviewing plans for an electric-powered space tug, which would transport cargo between the moon and Earth without expensive fuels.”

And, “The reusable tug would fly between Earth and the moon, transporting cargo and possibly even technicians and other astronauts. It would be refueled at a low Earth orbit fuel depot and maintained by astronauts on the moon and the International Space Station (ISS) for as long as it’s in service.”

From: “Electric ‘Space Tug’ Could Transform Trips to the Moon”
By Karla Lant 6/21/2017
At: https://www.nbcnews.com/mach/science/electric-space-tug-could-transform-trips-moon-ncna775086

Hey, this is great news!
SpaceX to submit Moon lander proposal for latest NASA spaceflight competition. With the help of SpaceX, NASA just might meet it’s timeline

James Lunar Miner

JBurns and his ‘Potemkin Mars colonies soon’ cult leader/opportunist Mr. Elon Musk who financially benefited to the tune of billions of dollar from his good political friend President Obama’s cancellation of the Geo-strategic and politically important Constellation human Lunar return program and the substitution of a vague, foolish, highly partisan, and unfunded space policy of ‘ignore the Moon’s resources and head off to far distant Mars with Mr. Elon Musk’s overweight, highly risky, poorly space radiation shielded, and grossly propellant inefficient BFR/Starship’ are now supposed to be trusted with building a critically important and needed Lunar Lander? Really?

Maybe that will happen sometime after pigs learn how to fly to Pluto.

Note:

“Opportunism is the conscious policy and practice of taking advantage of circumstances – with little regard for principles or with what the consequences are for others. Opportunist actions are expedient actions guided primarily by self-interested motives. The term can be applied to individual humans and living organisms, groups, organizations, styles, behaviours, and trends.”

And, “Opportunism or ‘opportunistic behavior’ is an important concept in such fields of study as biology, transaction cost economics, game theory, ethics, psychology, sociology and politics.”

From: “Opportunism” Wikipedia
At: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opportunism

Yes, really. SpaceX is headed to the moon as a government contractor. Just like the supply missions (and soon manned missions) to ISS. Real hardware, not iodine fantasy power points.

James Lunar Miner

Why are our Moon’s resources and easy to climb gravity well the key to our Solar System and a politically healthy and Clean and Green Home Planet?

The Moon has a diversity of useful physical resources including elements that can be used as propellants for extremely high Isp and super cost efficient propulsion systems needed for reusable spaceships capable of commercial and space dominance missions in Low Earth Orbit and all across Cislunar Space and out past the asteroids and the many moons of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto.

The Moon’s resources and easy to climb gravity well will also enable the efficient and cost effective and construction of large solar-power satellites in various Earth Orbits that would beam energy to the Earth and make a significant contribution to eliminating CO2 pollution.

Using the Moon’s resources to demonstrably improve the health of humans and animals across our planet could loudly and clearly inform everyone on Earth that CO2 pollution, wars, and other forms of robbery and murder on a vast scale are not needed nor justifiable in the pursuit of wealth and power for nations, groups, and individuals.

James Lunar Miner

Is America clearly leading the world in this critically important and large-scale geopolitical and technical effort to efficiently mine the Moon and asteroids and use their resources to build huge solar power stations in orbit that could improve the lives of folks on the Home Planet? Maybe not.

Why not?

Instead of wanting to lead the world in using highly propellant efficient spaceships in finding, mining, and using Lunar resources, far too many Americans seem to prefer ignoring our international leadership options, commercial opportunities, and national defense responsibilities on the Moon and in Cislunar Space and instead like to listen to a billionaire cult leader/opportunist babble endlessly about a large, risky, grossly propellant inefficient, fossil fueled, CO2 spewing, and flying stainless steel smokestack Starship that ‘will’ supposedly ‘soon’ be used to ‘cheaply’ build private colonies for wealthy folks on a cold, radiation rich, far distant, fifth-rate, and pretty useless junk planet known as Mars.

Meanwhile, in the real and tough world of Geo-strategic politics, massive CO2 pollution/global warming, and commercial and military space high technology:

“Following its successful and world-beating trip to the far side of the moon, China is preparing to build a solar power station in space, as the world’s No. 2 economy strives to burnish its superpower credentials. With an $8 billion annual budget for its space program, second only to the U.S., China is seeking to compete with its rival for economic, military and technological dominance.”

And, “Initially, they plan to develop a smaller power station in the stratosphere between 2021 and 2025, a 1 megawatt-level solar facility in space by 2030, and eventually larger generators, according to the state-backed Science and Technology Daily.”

And, “The Asian power is developing sophisticated space capabilities such as ‘satellite inspection and repair’ and clearing up orbiting junk — ‘at least some of which could also function’ as weapons against U.S. satellites, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency said this month.”

From: “China Wants to Build the First Power Station in Space” By Bloomberg News 2/18/2019
At: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-02-18/china-wants-to-build-the-first-power-station-in-space

James Lunar Miner

When a Russian or Chinese or Iranian spaceship has a nuclear or solar powered and highly propellant efficient 2,600 Isp to 4,000+ Isp electric propulsion system using iodine as a propellant, it will probably have the high delta-v capability to fly the commercial and Space Dominance pants off an extremely limited delta-v and grossly propellant inefficient 380 Isp fossil fueled stainless steel smokestack/BFR/Starship any day of the week and twice on Sunday.

Note:

“Existing electric thrusters traditionally use as propellant xenon, which is significantly more expensive than iodine. In addition to this, xenon storage and feeding system is fairly complex and bulky, which significantly increases the size and mass of the propulsion system.”

And, “The developers are going to conduct ground tests of the propulsion system as early as late June, – said one of the project managers, design engineer Pavel Shcherbina.”

And, “Scheduled for 2022 is the experiment ‘Ostrovsky’ which was named after the author of the idea. It is proposed to conduct the first part of the experiment onboard the ISS, while the second part will use a Progress logistics spacecraft.”

And, “After undocking the spacecraft will stay in orbit one more month to test the new iodine electrical rocket thrusters.”

From: “RSC Energia is working on a new electrical rocket engine” By Klaus Schmidt 6/21/2018
At: https://spacefellowship.com/news/art53234/rsc-energia-is-working-on-a-new-electrical-rocket-engine.html

James Lunar Miner

NASA’s engineers and some folks in Congress understand how critically important 900+ Isp and highly propellant efficient nuclear thermal rocket engines will be in cost effectively exploring, mining, and developing the Moon, asteroids, Mars, and the many moons of our Solar System.

“Space technology received $926.9 million in the bill, with the report citing “the need to maintain an independent research and technology portfolio to support both science and human exploration programs.” Of that total, $180 million will go to Restore-L, a satellite servicing mission also previously threatened with cancellation, and $100 million to nuclear thermal propulsion research, including planning for a flight demonstration mission by 2024.”

From: Final fiscal year 2019 budget bill secures $21.5 billion for NASA
By Jeff Foust 2/17/2019
At: https://spacenews.com/final-fiscal-year-2019-budget-bill-secures-21-5-billion-for-nasa/

NASA and commercial space has extensively explored and exploited the ion propulsion option. The Russians are just trying to keep up.
It’s no mystery the technology will be used in the future and SpaceX will likely haul ion engines to ISS for testing as it has sufficient solar electrical power.

https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/20160006296.pdf

https://erps.spacegrant.org/uploads/images/images/iepc_articledownload_1988-2007/2013index/xi1i0x3l.pdf

http://mstl.atl.calpoly.edu/~bklofas/Presentations/SummerWorkshop2016/2_MichaelTsay.pdf

James Lunar Miner

Russia has used electric propulsion systems in space for many decades and has placed 30 times more nuclear reactors in space than we have. Russia is probably ahead of us in developing super propellant efficient nuclear powered electric propulsion systems.

The International Space Station should offer many useful opportunities to test, repair, stack or build, and resupply with iodine (or other propellants) our super propellant efficient electric propulsion system powered spacecraft that do a wide diversity of cost-effective and high delta-v space missions.

The ISS may be in a useful orbit for the basing of high delta-v capable Space Tugs that are capable of refueling, servicing, or moving other satellites.

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