Last week, NASA hosted an "industry day" for companies seeking to contract lunar leases with the government through their Artemis program. During the conference, industry representatives were able to ask questions about NASA's plans to best bring astronauts to orbit from orbit around the moon.
After Vice President Mike Pence set the goal to land people on Earth Moon by 2024, NASA officials have been working overtime over the past six months to put together mission plans and architectures to meet this deadline. The efforts culminated in the publication last week of a call to industry for designs for a human land system.
There's a lot to digest in this document, which contains three dozen attachments and several changes. And industry representatives need to react quickly and set a deadline by 1
The Lander program asks a large part of the US aerospace industry for technological development and production in a short time. However, one of the biggest and most immediate questions that every potential bidder has to answer is the start. How do you bring your lander hardware into lunar orbit?
This question is not easy to answer, as the choice of launcher requires a balance between political, technical and cost risks. There are also up to five possible options: Falcon Heavy, Vulcan-Centaur, New Glenn, Space Launch System (SLS) and Starship Super Heavy.
The upcoming task
Chairman of the Senate Grants Committee, Alabama Republican Richard Shelby has ordered NASA to use the agency's SLS missile to launch the Orion spacecraft into the lunar orbit. But for the Lunar Module, whose elements are positioned in the lunar orbit prior to the arrival of the crew, NASA has given contractors the flexibility to choose their own launch vehicle.
"We are working on a commercial design and commercial development. The complete solution for this demonstration and the launchers fit perfectly," said Lisa Watson-Morgan during the industry day. She manages the Human Landing System program for NASA. "The commercial vendors need to get a commercial carrier vehicle," she added, noting that this vehicle and its cost would be part of every contractor's proposal to NASA.
Although it is known that a lander is open to alternative designs, NASA is primarily concerned with a three-stage lander that is a "transfer vehicle". to take over the lander from a high lunar orbit to a lower lunar module and then to a "descent module" to bring the lander down to the surface. On the way there, the crew rides in a "promotion module", where they live on the lunar surface during their stay and start from the lunar surface back to the waiting transfer vehicle.
NASA has estimated the mass values for each of these modules using these lander components, as shown in the picture above. The total range of the modules is between 9 and 15 tons. Of course, any contractor can propose vehicles with the mass that he considers necessary to complete the contract. It is important that a heavy-duty missile can throw at least 10 tonnes into the lunar orbit. A payload of 15 tonnes or more could accommodate most of the landing components.
Another key element is the timing. During the Industrial Day, Watson-Morgan said NASA was nominally heading for demonstrations of lunar lander vehicles in August 2024. That is, they would have to be brought close to the moon beforehand.
The rockets themselves must either be certified by the NASA Launch Services Program, have three successful launches in the same configuration, or have a commercial version of the SLS Rocket. (We'll have more to say later on a commercial version of the SLS rocket later.) According to Watson-Morgan, three months before the "Flight Readiness Review", a proposed rocket must have met one of these criteria in order to launch Lander elements In fact, this means that a commercial missile must have completed three missions no later than the spring of 2024.
With this basic understanding of the technical and temporal requirements for a rocket intended to launch part of the NASA's lunar landing system to the moon We move on to our competitors.
There is only one rocket available today for NASA's lunar needs – SpaceX's Falcon Heavy Booster, which is not only certified by the NASA Launch Services Program, but also has three Although it has not shown any lunar orbital mission, the missile has a capacity of mi At least 15 tonnes to the Moon orbit, according to NASA's launch vehicle calculator.
The Falcon Heavy also has other advantages. Unless it is flown in fully consumable mode – which would be required for a full 15 tons – its side-mounted booster and possibly its central core could be reused. SpaceX can also increase production if more rockets are needed. And it will be difficult, if not impossible, for competitors to meet Falcon Heavy prices, which start at $ 90 million per launch.
However, it is not clear how many other contractors will use the Falcon Heavy. Many of the expected bidders for Lunar Module have their own rocket companies. For example, Lockheed Martin owns 50% of the United Launch Alliance and is unlikely to partner with SpaceX.
SpaceX has also built a successful model based on vertical integration. By not relying on traditional aerospace companies, the company was able to cut costs as well as act quickly. At the same time, contractors participating in bids for elements of the Lunar Module may be less willing to enter into contracts with SpaceX.
It seems clear that the only safe missile is if the timetable for 2024, which will be ready to fly from late 2023 or early 2024, is the Falcon Heavy.