On May 13th, 2019, NASA announced that the Trump Administration had requested a US $1.6 billion bump to the space agency’s 2020 budget, to assist it in its efforts to return humans to the Moon by 2024. If approved, the increase will be used by NASA as a “down payment” – or more correctly seed money – that will in particular be put towards studies and projects related to the development of a human-rated lunar lander.
Given just how much needs to be done, US $1.6 billion really isn’t that much; in 2019, NASA was allocated US $4.5 billion of a US $19.2 billion to put towards its lunar efforts, most of which was used in the development of the initial Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and the ongoing work in developing the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Capsule, with small amounts being allocated to studies such as the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (LOP-G) station, and development of a new generation of lunar-capable space suits.
But these capabilities are just a part of the infrastructure NASA needs to build if it really is to achieve a human return to the Moon by 2024. This includes the LOP-G itself, the need to carry out more extensive robotic exploration of the lunar south pole, the selected location for the landing, the development, testing and deployment of these robot missions, the development of the technologies NASA have touted as being required for a long-term human presence on the Moon (not all of which will be required in the initial phases of the return, admittedly). And, of course, there is the need to develop and test the lunar lander itself.
The announcement was used by NASA to springboard a series of new PR videos to help promote their lunar aspirations, including one narrated by William “James T. Kirk” Shatner – are upbeat whilst being light on details. Even so they are useful watching for those wanting to have the agency’s aims painted in the broadest of brush strokes.
Part of this PR drive included the confirmation of the lunar programme’s official title: Artemis. The daughter of Zeus and Leto, Artemis was the Greek goddess of the hunt, the wilderness, wild animals, and chastity, the patron and protector of young girls, and was worshipped as one of the primary goddesses of childbirth and midwifery.
However, in this instance, the most important aspect of Artemis’ legend is that she was regarded as the goddess of the Moon – and the twin sister to Apollo. As such, the name is clearly intended as a way to indirectly echo the can do attitude that marked the Apollo era.
With one billion of the additional budget request being specifically for use in lunar lander development, on May 17th, NASA confirmed that it has selected 11 companies to begin studies and initial prototype development of portions of human landers intended for use in the 2024 (and beyond) missions.
Some US $45.5 million has been set aside by NASA in support of all 11 companies, each of which is expected to make its own contribution – up to 20% of the total cost of their study / prototype programme to the development work. The awards are part of NASA’s Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) programme, a series of broad agency announcements that support public-private partnerships to develop technologies needed for NASA’s exploration plans.
The 11 companies selected comprise Aerojet Rocketdyne, Blue Origin, Boeing, Dynetics, Lockheed Martin, Masten Space Systems, Maxar Technologies, Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, OrbitBeyond, Sierra Nevada Corporation and SpaceX.
Given Lockheed Martin have been working on their own proposals for a lunar lander for some time (see Space Sunday: Moon, Mars, and abort systems), and Blue Origin recently unveiled their own lander, Blue Moon (see Space Sunday: a Blue Moon, water worlds and moving house), their inclusion in the list is unsurprising. Neither is the inclusion of the likes of SpaceX, Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corporation and Northrop Grumman. What is perhaps surprising is the inclusion of start-ups like OrbitBeyond (founded in 2018), which was initially granted a Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) contract by NASA, allowing it to bid on delivering science and technology payloads to the Moon, rather than being involved in the development of human-rated lander vehicles.
The awards require companies to pay at least 20 percent of the overall cost of each study or prototype project, with the work to be completed in six months. To allow the companies to start work immediately, the participating companies are allowed to start work while the contract terms are still being negotiated.
However, it’s not all good news. The 2020 federal budget has yet to be passed by Congress, and on May 16th, the House Appropriations Committee released an updated 2020 federal budget proposal of their own. This includes an additional US $1.3 billion in spending for NASA – but almost none of it is earmarked for NASA’s exploration programmes, which encompass a return to the Moon. Instead, under the House proposal, that programme is effectively cut by US $618 million.