With the Trump administration setting lunar exploration as the principal human spaceflight goal in the near-term, NASA has begun devising a plan for how best to meet that goal. As part of this development process, companies have begun pitching ideas to the space agency’s human exploration program about how they could help (and why they should be funded).
Some companies have talked with NASA privately about their proposed spaceflight hardware, while others have been more publicly forthcoming. Aerospace giant Lockheed Martin is one of the latter—the company is already building the Orion spacecraft for NASA to carry its astronauts into deep space and says it can extend the utility of this blueprint down to the surface of the Moon.
The company’s proposal for a “crewed lunar lander” is fairly ambitious. The 14-meter, single-stage spacecraft can carry 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 lunar orbit. This vehicle would be twice as tall as the Lunar Module used during the Apollo missions to the Moon nearly half a century ago. That vehicle carried two astronauts for short stays of no more than a few days.
“There is a lift elevator platform to get the crew down from the cabin to the surface,” said Lockheed Martin principal space exploration architect Tim Cichan in an interview with Ars.
The lander would have considerable dry mass—22 metric tons—and would require an additional 40 tons of liquid oxygen and hydrogen fuel for its sorties down to the surface of the Moon from the proposed Lunar Gateway. The vehicle’s preliminary design uses four modified RL10 engines, but other engines could be employed. The reusable vehicle could be re-fueled on the surface of the Moon or in orbit and should be capable of at least five to 10 flights.
Echoes of Apollo
The company opted for this design for several reasons. It is reusable, as NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine has stressed that he would like elements of the lunar program to employ reusability. The basic design of the spacecraft is built around the same barrel and cone structures of the Orion spacecraft, for which Lockheed has already built the toolings needed to weld the vehicle together, and it also would re-use some of Orion’s avionics. Also, all of this is within NASA’s current technological capability, so, with adequate funding, such a vehicle could be built relatively quickly, company officials said.
And finally, all of the technologies developed for a lander of this scale could be incorporated in a humans-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 feed forward to Mars,” said Tony Antonelli, the director of advanced programs for the civil space line of business at Lockheed.
My, what a big spacecraft you have
There are some questions about this approach. One is that the vehicle would require a lot of fuel, 40 tons, all of which initially will have to be launched from the surface of Earth and transferred into lunar orbit. This would require a costly Space Launch System-class rocket launch all by itself. Alternately, the fuel could be launched to low-Earth orbit by smaller rockets and then be transferred with a solar electric power tug from there to lunar orbit. Eventually, if NASA and commercial companies figure out how to mine lunar water, this hydrogen and oxygen could come from the lunar poles.
Secondly, NASA is not presently seeking this large of a lander. In March, the space agency solicited information from industry about medium-sized landers on the scale of 500kg, which could scale up to a 6-ton human-class lander. Lockheed’s proposed lander is considerably larger than anything NASA has requested so far. “What we chose to do is jump to the end game,” Antonelli said of the design.
It is not clear how quickly NASA wishes to get to this end game, however. In late September, the space agency released an updated National Space Exploration Campaign Report that outlined its plans for a lunar return. Although this plan did not go into great depth, it did provide a basic timeline by which NASA would make decisions.
Under the terms outlined in the document, NASA specified that it would wait until 2024 to decide the “date and method” for a human return to the lunar surface. In other words, it is unlikely to choose the vehicle in which humans would fly down to the lunar surface for some time. So Lockheed’s new renderings of its crewed lunar lander are likely to remain just that—renderings—for at least the next six years.
Listing image by Lockheed Martin