3 Moon Landers for NASA - Cité de l'Espace

3 Moon Landers for NASA

3 Moon Landers for NASA

As part of its Artemis programme to return to the Moon, the American Agency has selected three private sector proposals. It’s about making the Moon Lander which will take the first woman and the next man to our natural satellite.

As required by the White House, NASA is preparing to return to the Moon, aiming to take “the  first woman and the next man” there by 2024. This programme, named Artemis (Apollo’s sister, a conscious nod to the Apollo flights), has put the private sector in competition to develop a Moon Lander. While, as you would expect,  it is American companies that have been approached, the European industrialist, Thales Alenia Space, is nonetheless involved!

Europe involved through Dynetics

For this return to our celestial neighbour, NASA intends to send its astronauts into Moon orbit aboard its Orion capsule which will take off on top of the SLS launcher (Space Launch System) which is being developed. Remember that, following an agreement between the American Agency and the European Space Agency (ESA), Orion’s service module is supplied by the latter (the manufacturer is Airbus Defence and Space).

According to the planned mission scenario, once the astronauts are in orbit around the Moon aboard Orion, they will board the Moon Lander. This transfer could be done directly (rendezvous and docking) or via the Gateway station which would act as a hub around our natural satellite. NASA decided to use commercial competition to choose the industrialist which will develop its 21st century Lunar Module (or HLS for Human Landing System). Among the three proposals selected at the end of April, is that of Dynetics which works with more than 25 subcontractors.

Concept d’atterrisseur lunaire de Dynetics. Crédit : Dynetics

Concept d’atterrisseur lunaire de Dynetics.
Crédit : Dynetics

The Dynetics Lander could leave on top of the planned Vulcan launcher of United Launch Alliance (it is compatible with other launchers) to reach the Gateway station or Orion directly. The originality of the concept presented relative to the other two, lies in the fact that the cabin is very close to the ground and does not require a long ladder or descent platform which are found on the National Team and SpaceX proposals respectively (see below). Above all, Dynetics uses European industrialist Thales Alenia Space for a key part, namely the pressurised module which houses the crew, as well as (and we quote) “the hatch and the access door for extra-vehicular operations, the windows and thermal and anti-micrometeorite protection.”  It should be noted that a stay of up to one week is part of the specification.

The Dynetics concept has received a budget of $253 million from NASA. The agency will decide in ten months on which proposal (or perhaps 2) will qualify to go forward.

Blue Origins at the Head of National Team

The National Team proposal received the biggest budget with $579 million. NASA chief, Jim Bridenstine, has, however, specified that the amounts allocated are no indicators of the eventual selection.

National Team is a group of companies led by Blue Origins, the space company founded by Jeff Bezos, the billionaire head of Amazon.

Concept d’atterrisseur lunaire de National Team. Crédit : Blue Origin

Concept d’atterrisseur lunaire de National Team.
Crédit : Blue Origin

The National Team concept is based on the Blue Moon Lander presented on 9 May 2019 by Jeff Bezos in person. The manned part, which is also the recovery take-off stage, is produced by Lockheed Martin, an American aerospace giant (and main subcontractor of the NASA Orion capsule). Northrop Grumman is responsible for the transfer element which will take the lander to a low Moon orbit. Finally, Draper is taking care of avionics.

SpaceX and a Moon Starship

The company founded by Elon Musk has received $137 million for its Starship which is under development and will then become a special Moon version. Indeed, the aim is not to do a complete Earth-Moon return flight with this craft (of which it would be capable in its “complete” version according to Elon Musk).

Concept d’atterrisseur lunaire de SpaceX. Crédit : SpaceX

Concept d’atterrisseur lunaire de SpaceX.
Crédit : SpaceX

This Starship for Artemis would start its journey unmanned by a rendezvous in Earth orbit with another (previously launched) Starship in its cargo version to fill up on propellant fuel. Then, it would head towards the Moon to meet the Orion capsule. Once the crew is aboard the Moon Starship, it would land in the South Pole region (Artemis’s official objective). The craft could make several round-trips between Moon orbit and the surface.

As stated above, the three candidates have ten months to refine their concept and prove themselves. NASA could even select two of the proposals at the end of this period, in February 2021, and only choose the final provider after an unmanned demonstration of landing on the Moon.