Sizing up the rockets that would launch lunar landers in 2024

If you want to buy a commercial SLS launch, you also need to rent the mobile launcher from NASA.
Enlarge / If you wish to purchase a business SLS launch, you additionally have to lease the cellular launcher from NASA.


Final week, NASA held an “industry day” for corporations hoping to win lunar lander contracts from the federal government as a part of its Artemis program. Through the teleconference, trade officers might ask questions on NASA’s plans for a way finest to get astronauts from an orbit across the Moon, right down to the floor, and safely again.

After Vice President Mike Pence established the aim of touchdown people on the Moon by 2024, NASA officers have been working extra time all through the final six months to place collectively mission plans and architectures to satisfy this deadline. The trouble culminated within the launch final week of a solicitation that asks trade for designs of a human touchdown system.

There’s a lot to digest on this doc, which incorporates three-dozen attachments and several other amendments. And trade officers should reply shortly, with a Nov. 1 deadline to return proposals. After reviewing the submissions, NASA will award two or extra contracts that may permit corporations to maneuver into the ultimate design and improvement of Artemis Program lunar landers. The company wish to have two totally different designs transfer ahead towards completion, believing that competitors will end in quicker, higher {hardware}. However this will not be doable resulting from unsure funding from Congress.

The lander program asks quite a lot of the US aerospace trade when it comes to expertise improvement and manufacturing in a brief time frame. But one of many largest and most quick questions every potential bidder should reply includes launch. How will they get their lander {hardware} to lunar orbit?

This isn’t a simple query to reply, as a result of the selection of a launch automobile requires balancing political, technical, and price dangers. There are additionally as many as 5 potential selections—Falcon Heavy, Vulcan-Centaur, New Glenn, House Launch System (SLS), and Starship Tremendous Heavy.

The duty at hand

The chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Alabama Republican Richard Shelby, has mandated that NASA use the company’s SLS rocket to launch the crewed Orion spacecraft to lunar orbit. However for the lunar lander—parts of which will probably be pre-positioned in lunar orbit previous to the crew’s arrival—NASA has given contractors the pliability to decide on their very own launch automobile.

“We are employing a commercial design and development, end-to-end solution for this demonstration, and launch vehicles fall in line with that,” stated Lisa Watson-Morgan in the course of the trade day assembly. She is managing the Human Touchdown System program for NASA. “The commercial providers shall procure a commercial launch vehicle,” she added, noting that this automobile, and its prices, could be a part of every contractor’s proposal to NASA.

The three-stage lunar lander has modules that could fit on commercial launch vehicles.

The three-stage lunar lander has modules that would match on business launch automobiles.


Though it has professed an openness to various designs for a lander, NASA is primarily taking a look at a three-stage lander that includes a “transfer vehicle” to take the lander from a excessive lunar orbit to a decrease one after which a “descent module” to hold the lander right down to the floor. Alongside the way in which, the crew rides in an “ascent module,” the place they reside in the course of the lunar floor keep and by which they launch from the Moon’s floor again to the ready switch automobile.

NASA has estimated the mass values for every of those lander elements, as proven within the picture above. The general vary of the modules is between 9 and 15 metric tons, though clearly every contractor could suggest automobiles of no matter mass they really feel will get the job carried out. The essential factor to glean from that is that, at a minimal, a heavy-lift rocket in all probability wants to have the ability to throw 10 tons into lunar orbit. A payload capability of 15 tons or extra might accommodate most lander elements.

One other key component of that is timing. Throughout trade day, Watson-Morgan stated NASA is nominally transferring towards demonstrations of lunar touchdown automobiles within the August 2024 timeframe. This implies they must be delivered to the neighborhood of the Moon earlier than then.

Human Landing System booster considerations.

Human Touchdown System booster concerns.


The rockets themselves should both be licensed by NASA’s Launch Providers Program, have three profitable launches in the identical configuration, or be a business model of the SLS rocket. (We’ll have extra to say a couple of business model of the SLS rocket later.) To be viable for launching lander parts, Watson-Morgan stated, a proposed rocket should have met certainly one of these standards three months earlier than the “Flight Readiness Review” of a mission. Successfully, this implies a business rocket should have flown three missions earlier than the spring of 2024 on the very newest.

With this primary understanding of technical and timing necessities for a rocket to launch a part of NASA’s lunar lander system to the Moon, let’s transfer on to the contenders.

Falcon Heavy

There is only one rocket accessible right now for NASA’s lunar wants—SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy booster. Not solely is the rocket licensed by NASA’s Launch Providers Program, it has additionally flown three profitable missions. Though it has not demonstrated a mission to lunar orbit, the rocket has a capability of no less than 15 tons to lunar orbit, per NASA’s launch vehicle calculator.

The Falcon Heavy has different benefits as nicely. Until it’s flown in totally expendable mode—which it will have to be for a full 15 tons—its side-mounted boosters and doubtlessly its middle core could possibly be reused. SpaceX additionally has the capability to scale up manufacturing if extra rockets are wanted. And will probably be troublesome—if not inconceivable—for rivals to match Falcon Heavy pricing that begins at $90 million per launch.

For all of this, nevertheless, it isn’t clear how a lot different contractors will use the Falcon Heavy. Most of the anticipated bidders for lunar lander parts have their very own rocket corporations. Lockheed Martin, for instance, owns 50% of United Launch Alliance and would due to this fact be unlikely to companion with SpaceX.

SpaceX has additionally constructed a profitable mannequin primarily based on vertical integration. By not counting on conventional aerospace contractors, the corporate has been capable of slash prices in addition to transfer shortly. On the similar time, contractors concerned in bidding for parts of the lunar lander could also be much less keen to contract with SpaceX in consequence.

What does appear clear is that if the 2024 schedule stays paramount, then the one sure-thing rocket that will probably be able to fly by late 2023 or early 2024 is the Falcon Heavy.

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Eric Berger

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