NASA Assessing Options to Speed Up Mid-to-Large Lunar Landers

NASA Assessing Options to Speed Up Mid-to-Large Lunar Landers

NASA is beginning a quick-look study of alternatives to its existing plans for sending mid-to-large size landers to the lunar surface.  The one-month assessment is being run out of the NASA Administrator’s office rather than any of the mission directorates. Results are due early next month.

Tom Cremins, NASA Associate Administrator for Strategy and Policy and Acting Chief of Staff. Credit: NASA obtained a copy of the draft “Lunar Lander Assessment Terms of Reference” that designate Tom Cremins as the leader of a small, internal NASA team to look at alternatives to the plan put forward by the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD).  Cremins is currently dual-hatted as NASA’s Acting Chief of Staff and Associate Administrator (AA) for Strategy and Policy.

His “core” team members are from NASA Headquarters, three NASA Centers (Ames, Langley and Marshall), and the NASA Engineering and Safety Center.

NASA has a multi-pronged approach to lunar landers.  The Science Mission Directorate’s (SMD’s) Lunar Discovery and Exploration Program is focused on small lunar landers that could be launched as early as next year.  It is requesting $200 million per year beginning in FY2019 to develop partnerships with private sector companies to deliver payloads to the lunar surface through a Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) procurement.  Two of the best known companies expected to compete for CLPS contracts are Astrobotic and Moon Express, though several more attended a CLPS “industry day” at NASA to learn more about the effort.  NASA has not yet released the final request for proposals so how many companies ultimately will compete is not clear.  SMD AA Thomas Zurbuchen said last month that he anticipates five to eight companies “have a real shot” and while all may not succeed “we’re betting on them.”

Mid-to-large landers will come next in the post-2024 time frame as shown in this HEOMD graphic of its current human lunar exploration plans.

Source: NASA

President Trump signed Space Policy Directive-1 (SPD-1) last December directing NASA to return humans to the lunar surface.  NASA officials have been vague about precisely when that will happen, but indicate it will be towards the end of the 2020s.

HEOMD’s lunar lander planning is part of its Advanced Cislunar and Surface Capabilities (ACSC) program.  It includes development of the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (LOP-G) in lunar orbit.  In a March 2018 presentation to the NASA Advisory Council’s Human Exploration and Operations Committee, HEOMD’s AA Bill Gerstenmaier focused more on LOP-G and the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft that enable it, but said in the near-term HEOMD would begin initial planning of robotic lunar demonstration missions in the early half of the 2020s “with the expectation of larger (5000-6000 kg) class in the second half of the 2020s.”  Those would be large enough to accommodate crews.

The quick-look study will assess how to speed that up, although the terms of reference say only that the goal is the late 2020s “or earlier.”

As the NASA graphic demonstrates, partnerships with commercial companies are also envisioned for the mid-to-large landers.  The quick-look study’s terms of reference state that the scope includes options that may include improvements to “the partnership and commercial strategy.”   However, Astrobotic’s Dan Hendrickson told that NASA has not reached out to the company regarding this study yet.  He said his company’s Griffin Lunar Lander would be “an especially low-cost and highly capable lunar lander capability for NASA’s near-term medium and large size payload capacity needs to the surface,” albeit for cargo only, not crews.

What impact such a brief study by a small, internal NASA team will have on NASA’s plans is unclear, but it is interesting to note that the timing would allow any results to feed into NASA’s FY2020 budget proposal to the White House.  Agencies typically submit their annual budget requests to the White House Office of Management and Budget in September.

A NASA spokesperson told that “At this point, we want to look at what’s possible. How it feeds into the exploration strategy and budget requirements are still to be determined, but any opportunity we have to look at advancing objectives is a good thing.”


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