On Tuesday, March 26th, Vice President Mike Pence directed NASA to accelerate plans to send humans back to the Moon, moving the planned first landing from 2028 to 2024. That presents an incredibly short time frame for the US space agency, given all that needs to be done.
Rather than going to the Moon directly – as with Apollo in the 1960 through 1972 – NASA’s plans for a return to the Moon require the establishment of an orbital facility around the Moon – the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway – plus the development of the vehicle to get to and from it (the Orion MPCV), and a vehicle to get from it to the surface of the Moon and back. This, coupled with trying to develop a completely new and complex launch vehicle – the Space Launch System – capable of putting all this hardware where it needs to be, means NASA has a huge mountain to climb to achieve their goal and maintain things like operating the International Space Station – and will need a lot of funding to achieve it, something which doesn’t as yet seem to be forthcoming.
As it is, the SLS, as recently noted in these pages, has yet to fly, and has seen a number of programmatic changes in order to try to meet a time frame that was already tight before Pence give his March directive. Following the announcement of the shift to a 2024 landing, NASA actually wavered over using it, mulling the idea of using a commercial launch system instead (the Delta IV Heavy is capable of launching the Orion, for example) before deciding they would push to use SLS. However, in doing to, the agency then suggested they could cut the “green run” test of the SLS first stage, potentially shaving 6 months from the development / flight schedule for the first launch.
Viewed as a crucial pre-flight test, the “green run” would see the completed first stage shipped from the Michoud Assembly Facility, Louisiana, to the Stennis Space Centre, Mississippi, where its four RS-25 engines would be fired for eight minutes, simulating the actual flight of the vehicle prior to upper stage separation. It has been regarded as a crucial test, intended expose the untried first stage to the full force of a simulated launch to gather vital data on the stage performance and to see how the entire assembly stands up the rigours of launch and what might need to be re-worked, etc. The suggestion was that NASA skip it in favour of individual tests of the four RS-25 motors – potentially shaving 6 months off the SLS development schedule.
But on April 25th, the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) met to discuss this idea and strongly advised NASA not to avoid the “green run”.
There is no other test approach that will gather the critical full-scale integrated propulsion system operational data required to ensure safe operations. Shorter-duration engine firings at the launch pad will not achieve an understanding of the operational margins, and could result in severe consequences. I cannot emphasize more strongly that we advise NASA to retain this test … as NASA evaluates different paths to potentially accelerate the EM-1 flight, it cannot lose sight that the ultimate objective of that flight is to mitigate risk and provide a clear understanding of the risk posture prior to the first crew flight.
– Patricia Sanders, ASAP Chair
NASA has yet to formally respond to the recommendation, but it would seem unlikely they’d go against the ASAP. This potentially means that SLS will be unlikely to make its first uncrewed flight – Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) in 2020, and the ripples may spread further, affecting the time line for the first crewed test of SLS and Orion, and on onwards towards affecting the 2024 goal.
Another issue is that of how NASA will actually get to and from the Moon’s surface. Originally, the agency planned a “two-step” approach to lunar lander development: issue a procurement notice for the development of a lunar lander ascent vehicle, designed to lift a crew off of the Moon tat the end of their say, and a second notice for the transfer and descent stages of the vehicle – presumably allowing different companies to work on the various elements.
However, on April 26th, NASA altered the procurement notice to seek proposals for a fully integrated lander vehicle. The idea is to speed-up the lander’s design and development and potentially reduce issues of integration of elements built by different contractors.
Certainly, one company that could benefit from this switch is Lockheed Martin, prime contractors for the Orion vehicle, and potential major supplier of the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (LOP-G), the lunar space station seen as a pre-requisite to any crewed landings on the Moon. They first announced their concept for a fully integrated lunar lander in October 2018, and on April 10th, 2019, the company outlined changes to both their lunar lunar and LOP-G designs in response to the push for s 2024 landing.
Under their October 2018 plans for a lunar lander, Lockheed Martin proposed building a single, fully reusable vehicle, a 62 tonne (when fully fuelled) behemoth capable of taking 3 or 4 astronauts and a tonne of equipment to / from the lunar surface (by comparison, the Apollo lunar module weighed 16.4 tonnes fully fuelled).
This giant vehicle would support stays of up to 14 or 15 days on the lunar surface, prior to the entire vehicle returning to the LOP-G where the crew would use the Orion to fly back to Earth, while the lander refuelled itself from supplies shipped to the LOP-G and stored there.
However, such a vehicle presupposes the availability of a fully operational LOP-G, and there is simply no way such a facility could be designed, built, launched, assembled in lunar orbit and tested ready for operational use by 2024. This being the case, Lockheed Martin is now proposing a semi-reusable 2-stage lunar lander modelled along the same lines as the Apollo Lunar Excursion Module – although again, much larger.
In the revised design, the new lander would comprise a large descent and landing stage, only carrying sufficient fuel to get the complete vehicle onto the surface of the Moon and carrying various equipment lockers and bins. This would be topped by a combined command / ascent module that will would employ a modified version of the European-built Orion Service Module, complete with main motor and power generation systems, as its lower half. This would serve to propel the module and crew back up to the LOP-G at the end of a surface mission. The command section at the top of the module would include elements from the Orion vehicle for flight control, a dedicate lunar surface command deck and the necessary living space for a crew of around 3 for 14-15 days on the Moon.
Making the lander semi-re-usable means the Lockheed Martin do not need a fully operational LOP-G to support the fully re-usable version of their lander. Instead, a “bare necessities” LOP-G could be placed in orbit around the Moon – little more than a propulsion / power module and a docking adaptor – in order for lunar missions to commence. These could then proceed whilst the LOP-G is itself built-out to accommodate more advanced missions.