After 50 years of lamenting that America had abandoned the moon, astronauts are in a rush again, trying to go back within five—and NASA has asked aerospace companies to design the lunar landers that will get them there. The project is called Artemis, and the agency is now reviewing proposals to build what it calls the Human Landing System, or HLS. In January, it says, it will probably select finalists.
NASA had said a landing was possible by 2028. Then, the White House said to do it by 2024.
“Urgency must be our watchword,” said U.S. Vice President Mike Pence when he announced the new deadline in March 2019. “Now, let’s get to work.”
Of course, nothing much will work if Congress doesn’t approve the US $20 to $30 billion NASA says Artemis could cost. Ask around the space community and people will say a 2024 landing is “aspirational.”
Nevertheless, aerospace companies—including Blue Origin, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, SpaceX, and many others—are hard at work. The procurement process is a closed one; the agency will not say how many proposals it has received or what they include. But at one point, NASA says, it counted 64 “interested parties” asking about building the HLS or components for it.
“We’re relying on competition to help make this cost-effective,” says Nantel Suzuki, the program executive for the HLS at NASA. “To the extent the contractors can find efficiencies, they’ll reap the benefits.”
The contenders are hemmed in, though, by two realities:
First, when your marching orders are to get to the moon as quickly as possible, everything except that goal goes out the window. NASA has called for a “sustainable” lunar program, one that would use the moon as a steppingstone to a future Mars mission. It had said it hoped to have four astronauts spend 30 Earth days at a time near the moon’s south pole, mining fuel from the water ice found there. But with the 2024 deadline, the agency says it will be happy if, on the first mission, two astronauts stay for a week.
NASA has shown a generic image of a lunar lander in high lunar orbit. Companies with their own designs are not bound by NASA's. Image: NASA
Second, the mission will have to make use of equipment that’s already in the works, if only because building anything new would use precious time. NASA is committed to launching astronauts on its giant Space Launch System rocket, or SLS, and fly them to high lunar orbit in its Orion spacecraft, where they will rendezvous with the waiting lander. But neither vehicle has yet flown after a decade’s development. And neither was specifically designed for lunar flight.
Orion, for example, carries 35 percent less fuel than Apollo did, which means it can only produce enough power to reach a high orbit around the moon (where less energy is needed to slow a vehicle arriving from Earth). To compensate, NASA plans to put a small space station there called the Gateway, which means a lander may need an entire extra section—a so-called transfer stage—to get close to the lunar surface before its descent engines can take over. That makes an already-complicated mission even more so.
“You want to make it as simple as you can make it,” says Douglas A. Cooke, a NASA veteran who is now an independent aerospace consultant. “The probability of overall mission success is dependent on the probabilities of every critical operation or launch working, and the fewer of those you have, the more likely you’re going to succeed.”
A Question of Strategy
Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman were each designing lunar landers to be ready for astronauts by 2028—but faced with the new deadline, they said in October they would join forces. In their combined plan, Blue Origin will oversee the project and build the vehicle’s descent stage based on its uncrewed Blue Moon lander. Lockheed Martin will build the ascent stage to carry astronauts. Northrop Grumman will supply the transfer stage (think of it as a booster, perhaps bolted to the base of the descent stage), and Draper Laboratory in Massachusetts will handle software for navigation and landing.
How many rockets would be required to get all the components into space? NASA and others say none of the currently available commercial launchers is powerful enough to get a three-part lunar lander to the moon in one piece—so the pieces might have to be launched separately and assembled when they reach lunar orbit. Blue Origin is developing a heavy-lift rocket called New Glenn, but hasn’t said how many such rockets it might need for Artemis, or whether it might use rockets other than its own.
An artist's conception of a Boeing moon lander is shown here attached to the upper stage of NASA's Space Launch System rocket, for which Boeing is the primary contractor. Image: Boeing
Boeing says it has proposed a mission with the fewest possible steps—more brute force, less complexity. It would launch its lander—both descent and ascent stages—together on an SLS rocket with an enlarged upper stage. Skip the transfer vehicle and, for that matter, skip the Gateway for at least the first flight. Borrow systems from other vehicles you’ve built, such as the International Space Station and the Starliner orbital capsule.
“If you’re really going to accelerate this and do it in ’24, you really need to leverage existing systems that have a lot of flight heritage, or will have flight heritage in the near future,” says Peter McGrath, director of marketing for Boeing’s space exploration division.
While SpaceX has not publicly said whether it submitted a proposal to NASA for Project Artemis, it has in the past shown this artist's conception of astronauts unloading a future lander. Image: SpaceX
SpaceX will not say publicly whether it submitted a proposal, but it is already at work on a vehicle called Starship, and has said that as part of a separate project, it hopes to make an uncrewed lunar landing with it by 2022.
That date is—here’s the word again—“aspirational,” but SpaceX’s president, Gwynne Shotwell, says Starship was conceived to carry astronauts, and eventually will. “Almost all of our technology will be relevant to Artemis,” she said in October at a session of the International Astronautical Congress.
Who will win NASA’s favor? Probably more than one contender. “If our budget supports it, we’d like to take two companies all the way, with two independent landers, all the way through the development phase and the demonstration,” says NASA’s Suzuki. “We could take two of them all the way to flight in 2024.”
The countdown has begun, and everyone seems to believe it will be tight.
“It’s a good goal. I think it’s challenging the bureaucracy at NASA to do things,” said Cooke, the NASA veteran. “I definitely think it’s worth doing, and if they miss it by a year, then it’s still worth doing.”
Ned Potter, a writer from New York, spent more than 25 years as an ABC News and CBS News correspondent covering science, technology, space, and the environment.