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NASA wants to jump-start development of landers to take humans to the Moon

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Speed is of the essence

An artistic rendering of a lunar lander on the surface of the Moon.
Image: NASA

After more than a year of talk about returning humans to the Moon, NASA is asking the aerospace community to come up with designs for landers that can transport astronauts to the lunar surface. NASA’s goal is to test out these vehicles on the Moon as early as 2024 and then use them to take people to the lunar surface by 2028.

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine and other top agency officials outlined the plan during a media roundtable today in Washington, DC. While Bridenstine has trumpeted the idea that NASA is going back to the Moon to stay this time, he also noted that the agency is making speed a priority in its return to the lunar surface. “One of the things I think is important is again we want this reusability, we want this sustainability, but we also want to go fast,” Bridenstine said during the call. “It’s important that we get back to the Moon as fast as possible.”

In December 2017, President Trump signed a directive known as SPD-1, which charged NASA with putting humans back on the Moon to stay, but progress toward that goal has been incremental. Now, NASA wants to step on the gas.

That desire for speed is reflected in how quickly the agency plans to make selections of lander designs. NASA will put out a formal request to companies for lander proposals in March, with the goal of awarding and solidifying contracts between May and July. Each individual contract will be worth somewhere between $300,000 and $9 million. Bridenstine said NASA is open to both commercial ventures (like Lockheed Martin, Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Boeing) and international agencies sending in ideas.

All of the vehicles NASA wants to use to go back to the Moon.
Image: NASA

In the meantime, NASA is trying to expedite another program aimed at sending small robotic landers to the Moon, known as Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS). That program, detailed in November, tasked nine companies with developing tiny autonomous landers that can carry scientific payloads to the Moon. Through this program, NASA will release details on instruments it wants to send to the lunar surface, and the nine companies will compete to transport that hardware with their landers. NASA plans to release details of the first batch of 12 instruments next week. Some of these will include imaging and other scientific instruments as well as tools for prospecting the Moon to look for things like water ice on the surface.

Future NASA explorers could use the water that’s found on the Moon’s surface for drinking and growing vegetation, or they could break it apart to make rocket fuel. Since these capabilities are so critical, NASA wants the CLPS program to get going as soon as possible, with the hope that one of the companies could take payloads to the Moon by the end of 2019. “We have told everyone who’s in our catalog that we will incentivize speed, financially,” Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator of NASA’s science mission directorate, said during the conference.

Despite this newfound need for speed, NASA has been slow to figure out the overall strategy for its Moon return. Over the last few years, the agency outlined a multitier strategy for taking humans to the lunar surface. The plan entails building a new space station in the Moon’s orbit called the Gateway. This station is meant to last for 15 years in space, and it would serve as a habitat where astronauts could live and train. From the Gateway, astronauts would ride in landers down to the surface where they could explore and grab samples before traveling back up to the station.

NASA expects it will need a whole host of spacecraft for taking people to and from the Gateway. These include a spacecraft to travel from the station to a lower lunar orbit, a vehicle to descend all the way to the surface, and one to take people back up to the Gateway. NASA says it’s open to other ways of getting humans to the lunar surface. One notable option is SpaceX’s future Starship rocket that, when complete, could potentially launch from Earth and land humans directly on the lunar surface, bypassing the Gateway all together. However, NASA says, for now, it’s just looking for designs for transfer landers it has outlined in the most recent request.

An artistic rendering of a human lunar lander that Lockheed Martin wants to develop.
Image: Lockheed Martin

Even with all of this focus on speed, the current schedule doesn’t see humans getting back to the Moon for nearly a decade. That timeline has been heavily criticized, especially by the nation’s top space advisers. Members of the National Space Council’s User Advisory Group, which advises government officials and lawmakers on how to set the space policy agenda, argued that NASA is moving too slowly and that 2028 is too far away.

Part of the holdup is due to the fact that much of the lunar return architecture relies on two NASA vehicles that have been stuck in development for the last decade: a massive rocket called the Space Launch System and a crew capsule called Orion. NASA plans to use these vehicles to build parts of the Gateway and transport people to and from the new station. However, the SLS has yet to fly — the first demonstration mission planned for 2020 — and both programs have suffered numerous setbacks and schedule delays, making the future timeline of the Gateway uncertain.

However, some positive progress has been made in the Gateway’s development. NASA received design proposals from the private industry for the first element in the Gateway, a module that would provide power to the station and propel the vehicle through space. William Gerstenmaier, the associate administrator of NASA’s human spaceflight program, said that NASA will select who gets to build that module very soon. Additionally, numerous private companies have been developing deep space habitat modules through NASA’s NexSTEP program, which could be used to house NASA astronauts in the Gateway. “There’s real work moving forward towards the gateway pieces,” said Gerstenmaier.

Slowly but surely, this plan is coming together, though NASA is trying to make it go just a little bit faster.