Amidst all of NASA’s recent talk about sending humans back to the Moon, aerospace contractor Lockheed Martin says it has come up with a design for a lander that can transport people to and from the lunar surface. The vehicle is just a concept for now, but Lockheed hopes that it could prove valuable for NASA as it pushes forward with its plans for human lunar exploration.
Lockheed’s spacecraft is specifically designed to transport people to and from a space station — hailed as the Gateway — that NASA hopes to build in orbit around the Moon. Since early last year, NASA has discussed plans to create a small habitat for astronauts that could live in the lunar vicinity. This Gateway could serve as waypoint for astronauts to live and do research, according to the space agency. And then from there, explorers could travel to the Moon’s surface or onward to other deep-space destinations such as asteroids or to Mars.
NASA presented updated proposals for the Gateway this summer. The specs call for numerous different pressurized modules all strung together to create a home and laboratory for space research. The modules are supposed to be delivered to lunar orbit by a new massive rocket that NASA is building called the Space Launch System, or the SLS. And crew members would also reach the Gateway on a future deep-space crew capsule launched by SLS, called Orion, which Lockheed has been developing for the space agency.
But while NASA has been crafting the design for the Gateway, the space agency hasn’t discussed in detail how it plans to get people from the space station to the nearby Moon. That’s because NASA wants the commercial space industry to lead the way when it comes to designing and building lunar landers. The space agency’s administrator Jim Bridenstine has emphasized that NASA wants to engage in an Exploration Campaign to get back to the Moon, one that will rely heavily on private companies to supply hardware needed to put boots on the lunar surface.
To that end, NASA plans to start small. In April, the space agency issued a request for information, or an RFI, on designs for small robotic landers that can put payloads of at least 22 pounds on the lunar surface, a program called CLPS. In the meantime, NASA has mentioned that it will solicit proposals soon for larger landers that could potentially carry humans. Lockheed hopes to submit this design concept for the program, called FLEx, once the final solicitation is released. But for now, the company is letting the public in on the early stages of the design. “This is just us sharing some of our early design work to help NASA come up with their list of actual requirements,” Tony Antonelli, director of advanced programs at Lockheed Martin and a former astronaut, tells The Verge.
Lockheed Martin has issued a white paper on the lander design and plans to go into detail about it during a presentation today at the International Astronautical Congress in Germany. The reusable lander would be able to take a crew of four and up to 2,000 pounds of cargo from the Gateway to the Moon for about two weeks at a time, allowing astronauts to conduct research and grab samples from the ground. It could then take off from the surface and dock with the Gateway, where it could be refueled for future trips.
Just like the Gateway itself, the lander would also make its way near the Moon on the future SLS. The rocket would deploy the lander into Earth orbit and the lander would then travel the rest of the way to the Gateway. It would also receive its fueling at the Gateway, provided by cargo shipments launched from Earth. However, Lockheed says there is a possibility that the lander could run on fuel collected on the lunar surface one day. The lander’s engines are meant to run on liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen — the main chemical components of water. Lunar scientists are pretty positive that there is exposed water ice on the surface of the Moon, and Lockheed says those resources could be exploited and split apart to form rocket propellant.
“We still have to find exactly where the water is on the Moon and put a facility in place to harvest those resources,” says Antonelli. “So the initial capability is you can fill it up at the Gateway and do a round trip. And then the capability also exists in the future when… you could fill it up on the surface, go up to the Gateway and back, also on a round trip.”
Lockheed also hopes to leverage what it has learned from building Orion to help build this vehicle as well and lower costs. Antonelli says the company plans to use some of the same instruments as Orion, which have been built for Orion and already made to withstand the harsh radiation environment of deep space. Additionally, some of the large curved pieces of Orion could also be used on the lander, and Lockheed’s suppliers already have existing machinery to make those pieces, Antonelli says. “You can avoid an entire development cycle for some of the big parts of it,” he says.
Antonelli won’t say how much the lander could cost, noting that Lockheed is still coming up with an estimated price for NASA. For some comparison, the development of the Orion capsule is expected to cost about $19.47 billion, and it has yet to carry people. That is a different type of vehicle, though, and the lander may not be as pricey if it cannibalizes designs from Orion.
But this lander does rely on the completion the SLS, as well as initial construction of the Gateway. The SLS program has suffered schedule delays and cost overruns, with its first test flight not expected until 2020. And while NASA hopes to start launching pieces of the Gateway as early as 2022, people won’t be visiting the station until 2024 at the earliest. By that time, it’s possible that there will be a module for the lander to dock with at the Gateway. That means if NASA does eventually greenlight Lockheed’s design, it would be many years away from going near the Moon.
Everything is still in the very early stages right now, and Lockheed is just advertising what it can do for NASA. But NASA’s Bridenstine has been clear that when the space agency does go to the Moon again, the process will be done in a sustainable way with the use of reusable hardware from commercial companies. “We want space stations around the Moon that can be there for a very long period of time,” Bridenstine said in August at a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council. “And we want landers that go back and forth from that space station.”