Now that the Trump administration has made near-term lunar exploration the primary target for human spaceflight, NASA has begun devising a plan to best achieve that goal. As part of this development process, companies have begun pitching ideas to the space agency’s human exploration program about how they can help (and why she must be funded).
Some companies have spoken privately with NASA about their proposed spaceflight hardware, while others have come out more publicly. Aerospace giant Lockheed Martin is one of the latest — the company is already building the Orion spacecraft for NASA to take its astronauts to deep space and says it can extend the usefulness of this blueprint to the moon’s surface.
The company’s proposal for a “manned lunar lander” is quite ambitious. The 14-meter-long single-stage spacecraft can transport up to four astronauts to the lunar surface, where they can stay for up to 14 days before the vehicle’s engines blast it back into orbit around the moon. This vehicle would be twice the size of the lunar module used on the Apollo missions to the moon nearly half a century ago. That vehicle carried two astronauts for a short stay of no more than a few days.
“There is an elevator lift platform to get the crew from the cabin to the surface,” Lockheed Martin chief space reconnaissance architect Tim Cichan said in an interview with Ars.
The lander would have significant dry mass – 22 tons – and would require an additional 40 tons of liquid oxygen and hydrogen fuel for its missions to the moon’s surface from the proposed Lunar Gateway. The preliminary design of the vehicle uses four modified RL10 engines, but other engines can also be used. The reusable vehicle can be refueled on the surface of the moon or in orbit and should be able to make at least five to 10 flights.
Echoes of Apollo
The company chose this design for several reasons. It’s reusable, as NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine has emphasized that he would like elements of the lunar program to use reusability. The basic design of the spacecraft is built around the same barrel and cone structures of the Orion spacecraft, for which Lockheed built all the tools needed to weld the vehicle together, and it would also reuse some of Orion’s avionics. All of this is also within NASA’s current technological capabilities, so with enough funding, such a vehicle could be built relatively quickly, company officials said.
And finally, any technologies developed for a lander of this scale could be incorporated into a Human-to-Mars exploration program. A similar vehicle, of a similar scale, with similar engines could perform a powered landing on the Red Planet. “One hundred percent of this would be redirected to Mars,” said Tony Antonelli, the director of advanced programs for the civil space sector at Lockheed.
My, what a big spacecraft you have
There are some questions about this approach. One is that the vehicle needs a lot of fuel, 40 tons, all of which must initially be launched from the Earth’s surface and put into orbit around the moon. This in itself would require a costly Space Launch System-class rocket launch. Alternatively, the fuel could be launched into low Earth orbit with smaller rockets and then transferred from there to lunar orbit by a solar-powered tug. If NASA and commercial companies figure out how to mine lunar water, this hydrogen and oxygen could eventually come from the lunar poles.
Second, NASA is not currently looking for such a large lander. In March, the space agency asked the industry for information on medium-sized landers on the 500 kg scale, which could scale up to a 6-ton human-class lander. Lockheed’s proposed lander is significantly larger than anything NASA has requested so far. “We chose to jump to the endgame,” Antonelli said of the draft.
However, it is not clear how quickly NASA wants to get to this endgame. In late September, the space agency released an updated National Space Exploration Campaign Report, outlining plans for a lunar return. While this plan didn’t go very deep, it did provide a baseline timeline from which NASA would make decisions.
Under the terms set out in the document, NASA specified that it would wait until 2024 to determine the “date and method” for a human return to the lunar surface. In other words, it is unlikely that the vehicle will be chosen in which people would fly to the lunar surface for some time. So Lockheed’s new views of its manned lunar lander will likely remain that — renderings — for at least the next six years.
List image by Lockheed Martin