NASA: Landing Men & Women on the Moon Before the Next Decade is Out

Credit: NASA

NASA has released the National Space Exploration Campaign Report that had been mandated by Congress. It commits the United States to building a human-tended Lunar Gateway beginning in 2023 and returning humans to the moon’s surface by the end of the 2020’s.

The plan is to build a sustainable architecture for lunar exploration that is open to commercial and international partners. NASA would use the exploration campaign to test out technologies for sending astronauts to Mars.

Below are key excerpts from the report.

National Space Exploration Campaign Report
September 2018

[Full Report — PDF]

Five Core National Drivers

The National Space Exploration Campaign aims to revitalize and add direction to NASA’s enduring purpose to carry out human and robotic exploration missions, expanding the frontiers of human experience and scientific discovery of the natural phenomena of Earth, other worlds, and the cosmos as a whole. NASA also advances new technologies in aeronautics and space systems that allow American industry to increase market shares and create new markets. The Campaign addresses five core national drivers:

  • Scientific Knowledge
  • Global Engagement
  • Economic Development
  • Societal Improvement
  • Leadership and Inspiration

Strategic Goals

The National Space Exploration Campaign has five strategic goals:

  1. Transition U.S. human spaceflight in LEO to commercial operations that support NASA and the needs of an emerging commercial economy.
  2. Lead the emplacement of capabilities that support lunar surface operations and facilitate missions beyond cislunar space.
  3. Foster scientific discovery and characterization of lunar resources through a series of robotic missions.
  4. Return U.S. astronauts to the surface of the Moon for a sustained campaign of exploration and utilization.
  5. Demonstrate on the Moon the capabilities required for human missions to Mars and other destinations.
Credit: NASA


NASA is building a plan for Americans to orbit the Moon, starting in 2023, and land astronauts on the surface no later than the late 2020s….

By the late 2020s, a lunar lander capable of transporting crews and cargo will begin sortie missions to the surface of the Moon. Lunar surface activities enabled by these efforts, in tandem with the Gateway, will expand and diversify over time, taking advantage of the Moon and cislunar space for scientific exploration in the broadest sense.

Lunar Gateway – Living and Working Around the Moon

Credit: NASA

On the Gateway, America and her partners will prepare to transit deep space, validating new technologies and systems as we build the infrastructure to support missions to the surface of the Moon and prepare for the epochal journey to Mars. NASA also will study the effects of the deep space environment of the Gateway. We will learn how living organisms react to the radiation and microgravity environment beyond LEO. The Gateway will serve as a critical laboratory to expand our knowledge in this area by hosting biological and biomedical studies in the deep-space environment over longer periods than previously possible.

The Gateway also will be assessed as a platform for the assembly of payloads and systems, by robots or humans, for human and scientific exploration that leverages its unique vantage point in deep space. The Gateway will serve as a reusable command module for lunar vicinity and surface exploration. It will evolve to serve as a way station for the development of refueling depots, servicing platforms, and a sample return facility from the surface of the Moon and other bodies in support of science and commerce. At its fullest, the Gateway will take up 20 percent of the habitable volume of the ISS.

From a strategic perspective, the Gateway transitions ISS partnerships within the commercial space sector and international community from low-Earth orbit to the Moon. Some elements of the Gateway already are under construction at NASA centers across the United States, including facilities in Ohio, Texas and Alabama, and at commercial partner facilities.

The first element, providing power and propulsion, will launch from Florida in 2022. The development of this first strategic element will incorporate innovative procurement and partnering strategies, capitalize on U.S. commercial communication satellite capabilities, demonstrate high-power solar electric propulsion technology, and provide critical functionality for the rest of the space vehicle (such as the SEP and Habitation module).

Through an innovative combination of missions involving commercial and international partners, robotic lunar surface missions will begin as early as 2020, focus on scientific exploration of resources, and prepare the lunar surface for a sustained human presence.

The Gateway will be constructed in place, incrementally, using the American-built Orion spacecraft and SLS, as well as commercial launch vehicles.

Near-Term Precursor Missions

Credit: NASA

In the near-term, NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) Lunar Discovery and Exploration Program (LDEP) will provide delivery of lunar payloads using emerging commercial landers through the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) procurement – the defining values being speed and commercial partnership. NASA will focus on continued growth of emerging commercial capabilities to enhance lunar lander capabilities and utilization of the Moon (including potential lunar communications networks). In every aspect, technology and commercial sector capabilities will feed forward and integrate with human exploration approaches.

NASA is reviewing longer-term, higher-power capabilities needed to survive lunar nights and operations in shaded portions of the surface by considering surface fission power, which will fuel in-situ resource utilization demonstrations and other needs. NASA also is studying requirements for the next-generation spacesuits needed for lunar exploration.

While orbital missions have provided extensive information about the lunar surface and its potential resources, robotic lunar scouts are essential to validate these observations and prepare for human habitation and utilization of the Moon’s rich array of resources.

Planned landers and rovers provide excellent platforms to demonstrate technologies that will enable greater lunar surface mission capabilities and have applications that extend beyond the Moon to Mars. Multiple landers will provide a global view of the Moon and its resources.

Landers, outfitted with sensor packages, also will be used to conduct critical risk-reduction activities, including those that aid in the development of technologies that will enable precise and soft landings on the lunar surface. Rovers will be used to explore the surface more extensively; carrying instruments such as ISRU experiments that will provide detailed information on the availability and extraction of usable resources, including oxygen and water….

Overall, the National Space Exploration Campaign is different from past endeavors that were unsustainable or never matured. With an open architecture approach, the National Space Exploration Campaign provides the flexibility to incorporate new systems and capabilities as they develop, thereby taking advantage of newly acquired knowledge and the technological and economic capabilities of all exploration partners.

For example, commercial launch capabilities are increasing with multiple new heavy-lift systems expected to be operational by the early- to mid-2020s. It is in the national interest to have reliable, lower-cost launch capabilities and the National Space Exploration Campaign will take advantage of those capabilities as they emerge.

NASA has led the development of standards in key operations and interfaces that will ensure that, as new capabilities are developed by the U.S. commercial space sector and international partners, the National Space Exploration Campaign can leverage and incorporate them as appropriate.

Key Questions

As we move beyond low-Earth Orbit, America and its strategic partners will begin to answer critical questions, such as:

  1. Can the Moon become a center for commercial enterprise? Are there significant deposits of water that can support human settlement or fuel a human journey to deep space?
  2. How can the Campaign engage a broader range of U.S. industrial sectors?
  3. How can we translate the incredible developments from this Campaign into benefits for American and global society?
  4. How will advanced propulsion play a role in opening the ocean of space for American voyagers well beyond today’s limitations? For example, what roles will chemical propulsion, solar electric propulsion, and nuclear propulsion for space transportation play?

International Space Station Transition

International Space Station (Credit: NASA)

In pursuit of a timely development and transition of commercial capabilities in LEO, where NASA envisions being one of many customers in the mid-2020s, the Administration is requesting $150 million in FY2019 (with increasing investments in subsequent years) for a new Commercial LEO Development program. These funds will stimulate the development and maturation of private sector entities and capabilities that will ensure commercial successors to the ISS – potentially including elements of the ISS – are operational by 2025.

This stimulation seeks to strengthen overall demand and interest in utilization of commercial platform(s) in LEO. It is vitally important that a broad customer base emerges in the next few years to supplant NASA’s historically central role in the LEO economy. Private sector platform operators will be best able to identify potential customers for their platforms, including activities that NASA might may not have the capability or authority to support using a government-owned and operated platform.

U.S. companies will begin to provide commercial access to space for paying customers from the U.S. and around the world. The commercial possibilities are endless – from tourism to training for deep space missions. For example, biotechnology, materials and manufacturing companies require equipment to produce the breakthrough pharmaceuticals, the highest-quality optical fiber or 3D-printed tools for space travel, and any platform will need to support highly trained, discipline-specific scientists and engineers to live and work in the unique microgravity environment.

Specific transition activities include:

  • Expand partnerships in LEO to include new companies and nations, including working with commercial partners to support new international astronaut visits.
  • Expand public-private partnerships to develop and demonstrate technologies and capabilities to enable new commercial space products and services, including those that continue scientific exploration in LEO.
  • Pursue other efforts to enable the shift away from direct government-funded support of the ISS. For a full assessment on the transition of LEO, please refer to the recently published NASA ISS Transition Report at:


In June 2018 NASA’s Curiosity Rover used its Mast Camera, or Mastcam, to snap photos of the intensifying haziness the surface of Mars, caused by a massive dust storm. The rover is standing inside Gale Crater looking out to the crater rim. The photos span about a couple of weeks, starting with a shot of the area before the storm appeared. (Credits: NASA)

An important part of the National Space Exploration Campaign’s goals for Mars and beyond include maintaining and growing U.S. leadership at Mars with a rover in 2020 as the first step of a sample-return strategy. We will search for past life and demonstrate the production of fuel and other resources that enable human exploration.

We also will use this mission as a building block for a subsequent roundtrip robotic mission with the historic first rocket launch off another planet and a sample return. This mission will serve as a critical precursor to an eventual series of crewed Mars missions planned to start in the 2030’s and culminating in a surface landing.

  • Jeff Smith

    I’m fine with that kind of timeline if it means we never have another “post Apollo contraction” ever again. Space is the long game. As long as we’re continuing to expand outward, 5 or 10 years here or there just doesn’t really matter much.

  • Robert G. Oler

    fantasy so its now pushed to sometime during the 2030 decade…? Like never

  • Eric Thiel

    So who will send humans around the moon first: SLS or BFR? And will it be in 2023?

  • ThomasLMatula

    Sad, just sad. When President Kennedy proposed Project Apollo, we didn’t even know what the surface of the Moon was like, or have a clue on how big a rocket would be needed. And yet 8 years and 56 days laters astronauts set foot on its surface.

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    Look at the “Near-Term Precursor Missions” picture. Small robotic landers in 2 years, medium sized landers in 4 years and advanced landers in about 6 years. Then we have to develop manned cabins for the advanced landers.

    It takes 18 months to book a launch so videos of the small lander test fights should be available before next Easter.

    To determine if the manned missions are real keep an eye open for spending on development of life support systems for the manned landers.

  • Eric Thiel

    Wonder how long it would take to book a flight with SpaceX in a few years? I’m guessing they will hit their 100 launch sometime in 2020. By then maybe they could cut the booking time down to a few months if they can prove the can turn around a 1st stage within a few days

  • ThomasLMatula

    Yes. I wish that Elon Musk would drop Tesla and focus on what is important. Tesla will just be a footnote in 100 years whereas SpaceX will give humanity the Solar System.

  • The frustrating thing is that we could easily fund a set of Lunar COTS program starting with the development of full-scale landers that could be human-rated. For example, for only about $200 M, ULA could modify the Centaur upper stage to become the XEUS lander. We may get there eventually but why not right away?

  • nathankoren

    Re: that first graphic… Do you think that having three “America Will Lead” headlines is really enough? There’s still a bit of blank space which they could use.

  • Robert G. Oler


  • Robert G. Oler

    Thomas that is the paragraph of faith. so far Musk has recovered first stages but is cagey about what that has done to his price structure…there is no hint of reduction in prices which is the one thing it would take to “evolve the sat manufactoring” process…he (and Boeing) are flailing in an attempt to fly commercial crew. so far red dragon, lunar dragon etc have all “fell apart”

    and now we have BFR/BFS which is just all vapor ware in terms of price.

    I hope you are correct but day by day Musk looks more talk than reality

  • Robert G. Oler

    SpaceX has rockets, they are in a pause…? 18 months?

  • Kirk

    Is that a sign of compensation for an inferiority complex?

  • Larry J

    During the time, NASA’s funding was 4% of the federal budget. When you have so much money that your unofficial motto was “Waste anything but time”, well, you can accomplish quite a bit in a hurry.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Why would he lower price? There is no evidence of price elasticity in either the commercial satellite or government launch markets. Remember, he’s not in any cost plus contracts and with demand being inelastic in the current price range all he had to do is just undercut his competitor’s price. Its why in terms of COTS he actually raised his price to NASA, he was able to do so while still undercutting his competitors.

    No, SpaceX is a business not a charity and it is acting logically in its pricing strategy based on the inelasticity of its markets. The problem is the space industry has a cost plus contract mentality so embedded in its mindset that it fails to see that SpaceX is acting like a normal business firm with an innovative technology, slowing sliding down the demand curve to maximize profits before competition emerges to its innovations.

  • ThomasLMatula

    No, the difference was that NASA was a young organization willing to take risks and push the envelope, unlike today when it has become a bureaucracy buried under procedures and rules.

    Even with a 4% budget NASA wouldn’t be able to return to the Moon, because going to the Moon is dangerous and risky with existing technology. That is why they are only proposing a human tended Gateway in lunar orbit, a nice safe place to visit while operating rovers on the Moon and having rock samples brought to them in safety.

  • 76 er

    “more talk than reality”

    I used to think “vaporware”, too years and years before FH launched, but watching that event was a watershed moment. SpaceX pulled it off. A year hasn’t even gone by since then and the first launch of Dragon 2 is almost here. “Flailing” is not the word I’d use to describe their efforts.

    As far as funding is concerned, both Fidelity Investments and Google are backers. They’ve both got deep pockets, and taking the leap of faith here that you mentioned probably more investors will come forth with funds for BFR once US crews are flying again without Russian assistance.

  • Robert G. Oler

    little of that I agree with

    “Why would he lower price?”

    for two reasons. as must be “clear” now the launch rate that SpaceX can accomplish seems to be fixed by the current market…it will not get larger unless the pool expands and that will, in theory only happen if the cost goes down. In other words the “pool” of satellite launches that Musk can sell his falcon9 or FH to is fixed as long as the price he sets is only to undercut Aspace and ULA

    If he wants to increase the flight rate, which seems to be essential to making reusability work and achieve lower launch cost, then any launch savings that he has ie from a lower price, have to be expended to increase the pool

    otherwise the number is fixed and lower cost access to space makes no sense

    Red Dragon failed, I guess because spaceX was unable to satisfy logical and thoughtful concerns that NASA had/has about landing sequences and failure recovery. and based on that SX declined to do the test on their own nickle

    I dont know why lunar dragon died…it didnt need land landing

    “. And remember when the Dragon2 was going to carry 7”

    because NASA has no need for 7 and wanted the dry cargo capability…the vehicle itself can (as can Boeings) carry 7

    if reusability does not lower the cost, why have it?

  • ThomasLMatula

    You are using the wrong yardstick. It is not about flight rate directly, but about profitability. If he makes more profit flying twice a year then he would make by lowering his prices enough to get a third flight it, it makes sense to only fly twice a year. Remember, in business its about total profits. And again, its not about cost, but about pricing and maximizing the difference between Total Cost and Total Revenue to maximize Total Profit.

    I assume you were referring to the Dragon2 that would be able to land on the Moon when you were talking about Lunar Dragon, since that is the name that was used for it at conference presentations.

    If you mean about the flight around the Moon its simple, namely that he its more efficient for him to invest the money it would have taken to prove the Dragon2 heat shield was lunar capable and human rate the FH on developing the BFR. Its a typical investment decision businesses make all the time, namely that it’s better to invest in a new model rather than update the old one. NASA requirements for the Dragon2 being developed under the “Commercial Crew” Program simply made it unsuitable for the commercial markets Elon Musk has in mind, so he has stopped development of it for commercial markets and is focusing on the BFR instead. In short “Commercial Crew” as managed by NASA killed of any practical commercial uses of the Dragon since it made no sense to have a NASA Dragon2 and a very different Commercial Dragon2, so Elon Musk moved on.

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    An individual payload may be able to jump the queue.

    18 months? NASA procurement alone takes about half a year. Consider Commercial Lunar Payload Services – Draft Request April 2018, formal Request issued in September and contracts to be awarded in the beginning of the next year. Companies have to handle this sort of delay plus the time it takes to construct a rocket.

  • redneck

    Do you happen to realize that 1/2% of the 2018 budget has more purchasing power than 4% of any years budget of the 1960s? Not only is the economy massively larger, but also many of the major line items of then are petty cash items now.

    As Thomas mentions below, it is the management.

  • redneck

    ” spaceX was unable to satisfy logical and thoughtful concerns that NASA ”

    With RGO putting that into a sentence, taking his objections seriously is…..difficult.

  • Zed_WEASEL

    So who is going to provided the $200M to modified a Centaur stage to a DTAL lander?

    Definitely not NASA or ULA. In NASA’s case they don’t want a Lunar lander that is not in house IMO and in ULA ‘s case they have no money as all profits are siphoned off by the parents. Other US players have their own Lunar access plans.

    And who is going to pay for the Atlas V to test out the DTAL lander?

    Sadly the DTAL lander concept’s time have past IMO.

  • Larry J

    Do you happen to realize that adjusted for inflation, NASA’s 1961 budget was over 20% larger than this year’s budget. Every year’s budget through 1968 was larger than their current budget.

  • redneck

    Purchasing power

  • Michael Halpern

    Considering the CLPS program I wouldn’t rule out NASA using a lander not in house, at the right price

  • Michael Halpern

    who is their most important audience that isn’t expected to read the text?

  • Michael Halpern

    that said they seem willing to take risks through commercial enterprise,

  • > So who is going to provided the $200M to modified a Centaur stage to a DTAL lander?

    The same people who provided the $400 M for the development of the Falcon 9 — NASA. What I am proposing is that we simply repeat our success with COTS by developing a “Lunar COTS”.

    > In NASA’s case they don’t want a Lunar lander that is not in house IMO

    They are constantly talking about commercial landers. Blue Origin submitted a white paper during the transition which seems to have influenced the Administrations setting of 5,000 kg to the lunar surface as the size of commercial lander that they want to eventually have.

    > and in ULA ‘s case they have no money as all profits are siphoned off by the parents.

    Sure, but in Boeing’s case they would not have developed the CST-100 Starliner unless there was funding via a public-private program. Likewise, if NASA were to, one again, put up a few billion dollars for the development of a commercial transportation system to the Moon, certainly companies would respond to that opportunity including, and especially, ULA.

    > And who is going to pay for the Atlas V to test out the DTAL lander?

    NASA as part of a set of Lunar COTS programs just like the Atlas V launch of the Starliner would be part of the Commercial Crew program.

    Lunar COTS isn’t an unusual concept. IMO, it’s the logical way forward.

    Sadly the DTAL lander concept’s time have past IMO.

  • Zed_WEASEL

    Not for a crewed lander IMO.

  • Michael Halpern

    if its available and proven sufficiently, from a private American company based on their charter they pretty much CAN’T develop their own.

  • Zed_WEASEL

    @DougSpace is talking about developing a new Lunar lander, not one that is available.

  • Zed_WEASEL

    There will not be too much budget left if the SLS, Orion & LOP-G programs are active. They are inter-lined, either they are all active or they are all get cancelled.

    Lunar COTS (more appropriately CLTS: Commercial Lunar Transportation System) will not happen as long as the LOP-G is active. Beside it will not enter service before private commercial Lunar landers become available. Estimate it will take at least $3B in development budget if NASA is involved in the CLTS design process.

    Unless NASA gets a new budget line item. There will not be any additional manned space programs other than SLS, Orion & LOP-G. Your Lunar COTS concept is only justifiable if the lander is crewed.