NASA Seeks US Partners to Develop Reusable Systems to Land Astronauts on Moon

Astronaut John Young salutes the flag on the moon during the Apollo 16 mission. (Credit: NASA)

WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — As the next major step to return astronauts to the Moon under Space Policy Directive-1, NASA announced plans on Dec. 13 to work with American companies to design and develop new reusable systems for astronauts to land on the lunar surface. The agency is planning to test new human-class landers on the Moon beginning in 2024, with the goal of sending crew to the surface in 2028.

Through upcoming multi-phased lunar exploration partnerships, NASA will ask American companies to study the best approach to landing astronauts on the Moon and start the development as quickly as possible with current and future anticipated technologies.

“Building on our model in low-Earth orbit, we’ll expand our partnerships with industry and other nations to explore the Moon and advance our missions to farther destinations such as Mars, with America leading the way,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “When we send astronauts to the surface of the Moon in the next decade, it will be in a sustainable fashion.”

The agency’s leading approach to sending humans to the Moon is using a system of three separate elements that will provide transfer, landing, and safe return. A key aspect of this proposed approach is to use the Gateway for roundtrip journeys to and from the surface of the Moon.

Using the Gateway to land astronauts on the Moon allows the first building blocks for fully reusable lunar landers. Initially NASA expects two of the lander elements to be reusable and refueled by cargo ships carrying fuel from Earth to the Gateway. The agency is also working on technologies to make rocket propellants using water ice and regolith from the Moon.  Once the ability to harness resources from the Moon for propellant becomes viable, NASA plans to refuel these elements with the Moon’s own resources. This process, known as in-situ resource utilization or ISRU, will make the third element also refuelable and reusable.

NASA expects to publish a formal request for proposals to an appendix of the second Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP-2) Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) in early January.

According to the synopsis, NASA will fund industry-led development and flight demonstrations of lunar landers built for astronauts by supporting critical studies and risk reduction activities to advance technology requirements, tailor applicable standards, develop technology, and perform initial demonstrations by landing on the Moon.

When NASA again sends humans to the Moon, the surface will be buzzing with new research and robotic activity, and there will be more opportunities for discovery than ever before. Private sector innovation is key to these NASA missions, and the NextSTEP public-private partnership model is advancing capabilities for human spaceflight while stimulating commercial activities in space.

The President’s direction from Space Policy Directive-1 galvanizes NASA’s return to the Moon and builds on progress on the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft, efforts with commercial and international partners, and knowledge gained from current robotic presence at the Moon and Mars.

For more information about NASA’s Moon to Mars exploration plans, visit:

https://www.nasa.gov/moontomars

  • No, like with Commercial Cargo and Commercial Crew, the first priority should be to set up the transportation system. This is where public-private programs should come in. After that then participating companies can attempt to develop sovereign client and commercial markets. Companies not using hydrolox would forever have to ship their fuel (e.g. RP-1 all the way to the lunar surface). There’s not enough carbon on the Moon for ISRU RP-1 or methane production and the carbon and nitrogen found in the LCROSS results would be better put to use at the base (e.g. plastics).

  • By region do you mean the South Pole or only Cabeus Crater? The LEND data indicate that Cabeus isn’t the only location with water and Cabeus by itself likely has enough water to last a long time. It is not likely that NASA just got lucky when they struck water. That’s likely representative of the very large Cabeus Crater and Shoemaker (100 km diameter) also looks favorable.

    https://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/vis/a000000/a004000/a004057/

  • Michael Halpern

    Not really a business case there, besides how is it saving money? You have to pay for the hardware to extract the stuff, and interest, and maintenance, and so on. Yes having a reusable lander based in LLO can get you more payload to the surface but lunar water is only interesting if I am only interested in the polar regions which I am NOT, i want a system that can be useful at any landing site because resources that i may want to use for things other than propellant will not necessarily be conveniently at the poles.

  • Michael Halpern

    The transportation systems are already being set up, isru aren’t strictly necessary, and only 2 proposed or in development landers even use hydrolox, blue moon and Lock Mart’s submission. Other landers in development include a giant Methalox system based around Earth Orbit Rendezvous for refueling, that will not be compatible with Lunar ISRU but offers huge downmass and is fully reusable and others use things like ethanol.

  • Michael Halpern

    I mean only the polar regions have water

  • As with Commercial Cargo and Commercial Crew, the government doesn’t need a “business case” but once the companies are helped to set up the transportation system, they can start to use it to develop markets while serving the sovereign client demand for international lunar exploration.

    The lunar poles would be the cheapest way to access the lunar surface and then, from those space ports, one could gain access to the other parts of the Moon either directly (with polar water driven to the more equatorial base for electrolysis) or via the movement of passengers or cargo via electric surface vehicles (24 hrs to reach 45° latitude at Apollo 17 max rover speed).

    I think that the greatest market demand in the intermediate and long-term will be for passengers to the lunar surface for a variety of reasons. The poles would be the cheapest way to access the Moon. What market (resource?) do you see towards the equator?

  • Michael Halpern

    You also seem to be ignoring the fact that Lh2 leaks through everything, you’re in an environment where there’s highly abrasive dust, and that propellant in a dark crater is going to be absolutely useless to someone in the equatorial regions, and most of your propellant needs if you go with gun launch (which is stupidly easy off of Luna) will be station keeping and orbit raising where cryogenics aren’t that great for.

  • Michael Halpern

    The business case there is that the CCP vehicles can go to ANY hypothetical station in LEO, if you restrict yourself to the polar regions of Luna with not technically required- maybe useful infrastructure, what happens when business wants to go visit (from a distance) the Apollo sites, both the landing sites and the hills seen in Earthrise? That infrastructure is useless, what if they want to set up lasers on the darkside of the moon? Again polar restrictive infrastructure is useless. If something is only relevant in a very small area, it might as well not be relevant at all.

  • LH2 doesn’t leak through the Centaur tanks which is where the LH can be stored. Gaseous hydrogen would be produced via electrolysis equipment and the gas would go directly into the lander’s tanks where cryocoolers would liquify it. There would be no transfer of LH in the process.

    There are mining methods to deal with abrasive dust. They do it all the time — so says Greg Baiden who is a leading expert in space mining.

    Refueling the lander at the pole means that one can retrieve about double the amount of cargo from about EML1 per Earth launch. Reduced cost cargo at the poles could be driven on compacted paths to equatorial locations via solar-powered – automated rovers. So, refueled lunar ferries would reduce the cost of supporting bases away from the poles.

  • Michael Halpern

    Given enough time and exposure to lunar dust… refueling at the poles means you can’t go anywhere else not worth it

  • Like Zubrin’s Moon Direct concept, a lander refueled at a polar base could provide complete, suborbital access to anywhere on the Moon, correct? I’m developing a website which describes how a polar base could be used for extensive international and private exploration and visitation to the Apollo and many more sites around the Moon. If having a polar base prevents one from going anywhere on the Moon, I certainly have never viewed it that way. I believe that it enables complete lunar access. Automated surface vehicles would lower the costs further.

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    As well as rockets vehicles includes manned rovers as well as mining equipment like bulldozers.

  • Michael Halpern

    If it only exists at the poles, it is too valuable to use for anything other than life support and it will be cheaper and easier to just use Earth propellants and maybe gun launch if you really want to save prop.

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    Currently Astrobotic Technology is quoting $1,200,000 / kg on the lunar surface. Even at 1/10 of that price transportation costs exceed the manufacturing costs of most things. Assume a set of machines have to produce twice their mass to be viable. If you can sell the item or refined raw material at 3 times original mass the firm is probably making a profit.

  • Michael Halpern

    Fair but they have development costs of something that is highly specific to luna landing to deal with, even Blue Moon will be derived from other hardware, and BFS will have the capability as part of its its native function as a fully reusable rocket

  • For that reason. Fuel expenditure. Using landers to commute would be more practical and cheaper than moving the whole Starship. Starship could work as a space station with landers going back and forth on a weekly basis, transporting good transferred to Starship from a ship doing continuous rounds between cislunar and earth space. Still, I´m no engineer so this is only a layman´s idea

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    Even when the development costs of the lander have been covered the project will still have to cover the high cost of the launch vehicles.

  • Michael Halpern

    That’s being addressed with RLVs

  • Zed_WEASEL

    Propellant is cheap. Hardware is expensive especially if you need to developed and build several different vehicles in parallel for a particular task.

    A separate Lunar lander instead of using the SpaceX Starship will cost almost as much to developed and build as the Starship along with a low production run. Which is to say you only need to developed the
    Starship without developing a Lunar orbiting facility, a LEO orbital facility, a Lunar lander, a Lunar ascend vehicle, a cis-Lunar transport, a Lunar surface habitat and ISRU tech for propellant production to established a sustain presence on the Moon.

    There is also the inefficiency of landing a few tonnes instead of 50+ tonnes per flight for about the same operating cost. Never mind acquiring and servicing many different vehicles.

  • Given that the dust is a known problem wouldn’t we take action to address it? I can envision approaches. Landing & take-off would be on pads. Ice harvesters would be designed where moving parts would be far from the source of dust and designed to not allow dust in between joints. Telerobotic and crew maintenance would clean dust. Worn parts would be telerobitically swapped with spares and later repaired when crew arrives. Similar measures when crew goes outdoors. So, it’s not like dust is an unsolvable problem without ways of addressing it. Are your many objections looking for solutions or reasons why a cislunar transportation system can never work?

  • Michael Halpern

    You still haven’t answered how that ice will be worth anything to someone interested in the equatorial regions if it exists only at the polar regions, if it’s distribution is like that it isn’t viable as a propellant plain and simple.

  • I did answer so I will repeat myself more clearly. Lunar polar ice approximately halves the cost of delivering cargo to the poles. That cargo can be driven via electrically powered, automated vehicles for very little cost all over the Moon. If one ships cargo to the lunar equator then one has to launch ascent and descent propellant from Earth instead of that mass being cargo.

  • Michael Halpern

    It would take weeks generously, for a large rover to cross that distance, you have 2 weeks of light, after which you want to be underground to save power.

  • Would you do me a favor? Calculate for me the speed that it would take for an automated vehicle to drive from a pole to the equator during the two weeks of daylight and then reply with your answer. Thanks.

  • Michael Halpern

    Depends on the terrain