NASA wants speedy development of commercial lunar landers
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.”
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 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.
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.”
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.
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
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 website about human spaceflight called Orbital Velocity.