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NASA turns to the private sector to make a lunar landing

Easier to render than to realize.
  • Tim Fernholz
By Tim Fernholz

Senior reporter

Published Last updated

NASA’s mission to put the first woman and the next man on the moon now includes a plan to, well, put women and men on the moon.

The US space agency awarded nearly $1 billion to three companies to begin designing vehicles to carry astronauts from space down to the surface of the moon, and back again.

The lander choice was the missing piece of NASA’s moon voyage plan, but the goal of returning to the moon by 2024 is still likely to be more than the agency can achieve.

The agency continued its emphasis on hiring  private companies to provide a transportation service instead of designing and owning the vehicle itself, as it did during the Apollo program or with the Space Shuttle. Instead, the landers will be developed along the lines of the spacecraft that ferry cargo and soon astronauts to the International Space Station, which were developed and are operated by SpaceX, Northrop Grumman and Boeing.

“We know that we’ve got partners out there that have already invested large sums of their own money into these capabilities,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine told reporters. “That’s not the way it was done in the 1960s when we went to the moon.”

The largest sum, $579 million, went to Blue Origin, the space company owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, and its teammates, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin, which have already begun developing a lander system. Another consortium led by the firm Dynetics received $253 million to develop its lander design. And, finally, Elon Musk’s SpaceX was awarded $135 million to develop its Starship, the most ambitious of the three designs.

“These awards build on the significant private investment and technological advancements being made by the commercial space industry, and represent an important step toward establishing a sustainable, long-term presence on the surface of the Moon and ultimately going to Mars,” Eric Stallmer, the director of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, said today.

These teams will spend the next 10 months finalizing their designs alongside NASA engineers before the agency chooses which one will actually do the job. Two other firms, Boeing and Vivace, sought contracts but were not awarded them.

The road to regolith

NASA’s return to the moon has been in the works for almost a decade now, but it became a top priority in March 2019 when vice president Mike Pence announced that the target landing date would be in 2024, the last year of a hypothetical second term for US president Donald Trump, and not in 2028 as planned.

The primary reason for the acceleration offered by NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine has been to reduce the “political risk” that impatient lawmakers might change their minds about a lunar return. But there is interest in going to the moon among scientists who say there is still much more to learn there, and entrepreneurs who argue that water on the moon could provide the foundation for long-term habitation, tourism,  and resource extraction.

Since that announcement, NASA has scrambled to meet the challenge, firing a veteran executive over delays and now setting aside plans to build a new space station orbiting the moon because it would take too long. According to its 2021 budget request, making the new deadline will require more than $30 billion in additional funding.

At the heart of the mission are a large rocket, the Space Launch System, being built by Boeing, and a spacecraft called Orion, being built by Lockheed Martin. Both vehicles are billions over budget and years behind schedule.

NASA plans to fly the first test mission of the two vehicles, Artemis-1, in late 2021. But last week, government auditors warned that any problems found in a series of key tests of the SLS and its software could add additional delays. That in turn could mean delays for Artemis-2, a crewed test that will fly around the moon sometime in 2023, ahead of the third Artemis mission, which will be an attempt to reach the lunar surface.

The biggest blank space in NASA’s plan thus far: When we get the Orion spacecraft in orbit around the moon, how will the astronauts get down to the lunar surface?

Turning to the private sector

During the Apollo moon missions, the space capsule carrying astronauts to the moon was launched alongside its lunar lander on the Saturn V rocket. After leaving the Earth, astronauts performed a maneuver to link up with the lander, and when they reached the moon, the two vehicles would separate, with two astronauts flying to the lunar surface and returning while a third waited above in the command module.

This time around, the original plan was to have Orion fly to a small space station called the Lunar Gateway. From there, they would use a lander to head for the moon. With the Gateway on the back burner, the new plan will be to fly the lander to lunar orbit on a separate rocket from the astronauts. Then, astronauts in the Orion spacecraft will link up with the lander to make their descent.

The three designs under consideration offer different approaches, according to an evaluation by Steve Jurczyk, the NASA associate administrator who led the selection effort. The plan from Dynetics, a long-time NASA contractor, had the highest ratings for its technical and management offerings, followed by Blue Origin, and then SpaceX.

Dynetics’ design is arguably the most straightforward design, balancing NASA’s near-term goals of getting to the surface quickly and its longer-term hope to have sustainable, frequent access to the moon. Blue Origin’s Blue Moon is a larger vehicle that better meets NASA’s long-term requirements, but its unproven propulsion system remains a “significant weakness” because it requires a large amount of development work.

SpaceX offered the most unique design, the Starship vehicle that the company has been developing at its Boca Chica test site in Texas. The large spacecraft meets all of NASA’s long-term goals, including reusability, but it is the most complex of the three designs. The schedule is, in Elon Musk style, ambitious to the point of impossibility, forecasting a flight of an as-yet-unbuilt booster for the Starship, two flights of the same Starship vehicle, an orbital light, a flight around the moon, and a lunar landing demonstration, all by 2022.

A key challenge will be getting the lander to the moon. All three plans depend on powerful rockets that are still in development—the SLS, Blue Origin’s New Glenn, United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan, and SpaceX’s Super Heavy Booster. Each is forecast to fly in the years ahead, but the average launch vehicle program is delayed by 27 months.

That means that even if SLS and Orion are ready to go in 2024, and the lander design is finalized, the lack of a proven launch vehicle could hold everything up.

What about Congress?

Technical challenges aside, members of Congress still have yet to align around the Artemis plan. One challenge for policymakers has been waiting for NASA to come up with its final scheme for the landing, and a final price tag.

Representative Kendra Horn, a Democrat from Oklahoma who chairs the House subcommittee on space and aeronautics, told Quartz that “unfortunately, more than a year after their announcement to accelerate the Artemis program, NASA has yet to provide Congress a transparent architecture and technical and cost assessment, despite our repeated requests.”

Now that the agency has settled on the outline of its plan, the question is whether Congress will back the agency with billions in additional spending, especially as the response to the coronavirus pandemic drives up US borrowing.

“I don’t see our budget being cut because of this,” administrator Jim Bridenstine said. “If we do an infrastructure package as a nation, I would like NASA to be part of that infrastructure package.”

Still, while lawmakers tend to support the return to the moon, some have been skeptical of NASA’s approach. Horn wrote legislation earlier this year arguing that NASA should own its lander design, not a private firm. She worries that companies will not be able to earn much money from these systems on the moon, unlike NASA’s public-private partnerships in low-Earth orbit, where there is more evidence that rockets and spacecraft can make a profit.

“I was disappointed to see that NASA’s decision on lunar landing systems development starkly contrasts the bipartisan House NASA Authorization bill and the advice of experts on minimizing risk and ensuring the highest likelihood of success in landing humans on the Moon,” she said. “I look forward to working with NASA in good faith to steer our nation’s space program in a direction that allows our country to achieve inspiring goals and explore space in a responsible and measured way.”

With Congress still out of session during the pandemic, it’s not clear when US policymakers will come to a consensus about how to proceed to the moon.

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