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

  • Michael Halpern

    Problem is that Gateway is in a poor orbit for a propellant depot, even if you are going with Lunar Orbit Rendezvous instead of Earth Orbit Rendezvous, it’s not directly on the way between Earth Orbit and Lunar surface, its a detour and not a small one at that. A depot in LLO can be useful even if you are using a BFR type system and all propellant is Earth sourced, as the dedicated lander can be lighter, and staying in LLO the ship wouldn’t have to reserve as much fuel for the return. Obviously with on orbit refueling, and Earth Orbit Rendezvous, you CAN skip the luna orbiting station entirely, but you will either need more tankers or less payload- likely both.

  • savuporo

    LOL. They havent gotten their LEO spacecraft to fly, haven’t built even a robotic moon lander for decades and keep canceling one after the other, and now it’s on to reusable manned moon landers FROM AN OUTPOST THAT DOESNT EXIST ? But hey look, all the timelines are several administrations away so it’s someone elses problem anyway

  • P.K. Sink

    …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…

    I’d love to see that happen.

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    Given a good payload interface the lander’s propulsion module and habitat module can come from different companies. Making engines and developing life support systems are very different technologies.

  • Zed_WEASEL

    The NASA plan of record make that unlikely in our children’s lifetime if we do it the NASA way.

    IMO it will be no earlier than the mid 2030’s before there is substantial propellants available from ISRU on the Moon. There is too much competition from cheap propellants lofted to LEO to make it worthwhile to mine for Lunar sourced propellants in the short to mid term.

  • duheagle

    Yes. Gateway, as currently envisioned, is a sideshow that’s so far to the side it’s entirely off the midway.

    I think Blue Origin’s participation in this program is a lock. But, given all the sturm und drang between NASA and SpaceX lately, I wouldn’t be shocked if SpaceX takes a pass. Once Super Heavy and Starship are flying, SpaceX can pretty well do what it wants anent the Moon anyway. And there won’t be any percentage to be had in waiting until 2028 to do it.

  • P.K. Sink

    You may be right. But using commercial competition to speed things along is a good thing.

  • duheagle

    Indeed. To put it in Zed_WEASEL’s terms, it’s the difference between seeing things done within our children’s lifetimes and not seeing them done because they won’t happen until our great-grandchildren come along.

  • duheagle

    It is, for sure, someone else’s problem, but the “someone” is not a future administration. The forces of reaction within NASA and the Congress have, I believe, finally provoked Elon Musk to make it his problem, given that solving it is a necessary node on the critical path to routing his enemies and driving them to defeat. Super Heavy and Starship are his Montana-class battlewagon. When they slide down the ways, he’ll be putting to sea with the Yamato and Mushashi (SLS-Orion-Gateway) in his sights.

  • Jeff Smith

    I think we’d all like to see that.

  • P.K. Sink

    Interesting analysis, mein General.

  • Eric Thiel

    Makes sense. I think he will want to get those Starship hops going as soon as possible. Once the public sees those tests, I’m sure people will see SpaceX as the better alternative. Also once the Dragon takes humans to orbit, that will create a lot of publicity that can’t be ignored.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    “The forces of reaction…”. How Soviet. I got a slight twinge of my days of listening to Radio Moscow on shortwave at 2AM. And you call yourself “The Eagle” and point a McCarthy’ist finger at those who oppose you at the drop of a kopek. …. Really.

  • Cameron

    Look who is pointing fingers! If you cannot beat the argument, beat the person, eh?

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Explain that. Go into depth.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Don’t forget the things that gave the Yamoto and Mushashi the most hell were dive bombers from escort CV’s and the Samuel B Roberts. Space X’s saving grace is their flight ethic. Their flight ethic is simple, they fly. But they still suffer from long development cycles that everyone else suffers from. If SX were in competition against someone as intent on flying as SX is, the question of who’s the Mushashi, and who’s the Samuel B Roberts would be very much the other way around from where you put it. BFS will lead simply because it has a development lead.

  • savuporo

    This begs the question, how many angels can dance on the tips of all them heavy lift launch vehicles ?

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    What kind of pins, carbon composite or metal?

  • Michael Halpern

    I am not even convinced that lunar ISRU propellant will be beneficial, water on Luna is likely too scarce and hard to extract for it to be competitive with Earth sourced propellant in most situations, the biggest challenge Luna has is energy beyond the polar regions you can compensate for some resource deficiency by being somewhat close to Earth. But you either need a large power transmission infrastructure or nukes anywhere away from the poles where a lot of points of interest may be.

    In general I see space ice as something that unless you have a lot of it readily available across a wide area is either going to be too valuable to use for anything other than life support or not worth mining because there’s no market for it, (because ion propulsion is more practical)

  • Once Starship/SH are operational, all SpaceX will need is to park Starship in lunar orbit hosting 2 reusable landers (Crew/Cargo Dragon for) in its cargo bay. Plenty of living space inside Starship to live and work. No need for a complex multi-module orbiting lab.

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    If we can not use water then aluminium may have to fuel moon-base and vehicles. Aluminium oxide is available on the lunar surface and can be separated using lunar power. The oxygen can be breathed and the aluminium used for construction and as a raw material. At night aluminium can be burnt to produce heat and using Sterling convertors electrical power.

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    Old legal saying:
    “When the law is against you argue the facts.
    When the facts are against you argue the law.
    When the law and the facts are against you call the other lawyer names.”

    So when the person you are arguing with calls you names it means your opponent thinks he/she has a weak case.

  • Michael Halpern

    Or just excess oxygen from metal, or using stuff from Earth or a gun launch provided the power, energy requirements aren’t as bad w/o drag or as much gravity.

  • P.K. Sink

    Just call me Captain Obvious.

  • Jeff Smith

    🙂

  • Zed_WEASEL

    Why bother with a small 1 tonne capacity lander when you could landed 50+ tonnes with the SpaceX Starship as a shuttle between LLO and the Lunar surface. You should have enough onboard unused propellants to sent Starship back to LLO from the Lunar surface. Of course you need a propellant depot (Starship Tanker) at LLO to fill up the Starship Lunar landers.

  • Kenneth_Brown

    I think it’s premature to be getting too serious about ISRU propellent manufacturing until more work is done on assaying what is where on the moon. Until it can be shown that water (ice) is available not only in local quantities that can be efficiently harvested but also that it’s in places where it makes sense to go. If it’s just at the poles, it’s going to be like looking for lost keys under the streetlight. Putting rovers and landers on Mars is great, but it should be much cheaper to put them on the moon. The long nights are an issue, but not impossible to work around. With lots of “ground truth” it will be easier to make rational plans about what can be done on the moon and at what cost.

  • duheagle

    Not sure why this is a reply to me as I wasn’t really addressing what Musk might chose to do on the Moon once he can get there. But, for whatever it may be worth, I am also a skeptic about both quantity and usability of putative lunar water resources. Until lunar water resources have been found, inspected and characterized, it makes no sense to allow any plan for lunar activities to be made that is dependent upon them.

  • duheagle

    As you were. 🙂

  • duheagle

    Yes. Smelting and purifying lunar-sourced metal from regolith should be an early priority. Surface-deployed solar PV arrays brought from Earth can power the initial modest refining facility and also a small mass driver to launch ingots into some particular lunar orbit that would be most convenient for later collecting them with minimal energy expenditure. Use the metal to build components for megawatt-range solar power satellites. Build enough of these and a lunar base could have continuous power beamed down from lunar orbit. Surface-deployed arrays needed in the early going can be kept around as a partial backup.

  • duheagle

    It is true I generally put Soviet-style phraseology in sarcasm quotes, but in this case the fit was perfect and non-ironic. The most refractory and entitled parts of NASA (MSFC) as well as a certain Struldbrug in Congress (Shelby) certainly represent an ancien regime. They don’t like what SpaceX is doing because it threatens all their rice bowls. I saw no reason to reinvent what I could borrow ready-made – in this case the phrase “forces of reaction.” If the shoe fits and all that.

    Just think of it as my having found something useful in a bargain bin at the USSR Surplus Mart and Recycling Center.

  • duheagle

    42. Next question.

  • duheagle

    I disagree that SpaceX’s development cycles are like “everyone else’s.” Orion has been under development for 14 years, SLS for eight and both are still at least three additional years away from a first flight – if then. SpaceX has never taken anywhere near even eight years to go from clean sheet of paper to operational vehicle. Even Falcon Heavy happened a lot faster than that. With NASA having no input into or leverage over SH-Starship, the development calendar for the latter is likely to be eye-poppingly short.

  • duheagle

    Bingo.

  • duheagle

    Yes. One imagines that at least a couple Super Heavies and maybe a dozen or so tanker Starships would be kept quite busy as, in essence, a propellant bucket brigade supporting a lunar surface base.

  • Michael Halpern

    There’s also solar furnaces you can bring from Earth, not as easy to set up as PV and you may need electric power for refining anyways due to temperature limits, but the solar furnace can provide more easily storable power as well, in a form you will need directly during the night. You could also as an alternative to beamed power make al cable on a mobile platform so you have options, might as well do both, and if nuke research decides to base itself there you have yet another solution to power but I wouldn’t count on it necessarily.

  • LCROSS found a location where the ice is at concentration of 5.6% which is one part per 18. Anthony Colaprete the LCROSS PI says that the data indicate that the icy regolith kicked up was fluffy and later imaging of the new crater indicated no reflection to suggest any hard permafrost-like situation. Ice-harvesting telerobots can be set at any desired temperature of designed to produce its own body heat. Any piece of those robots touching the ground can be made out of aluminum which does not become brittle at low temps as evidenced by the Shuttle’s main tank.

    2.5 tonnes of solar panels would produce enough power to electrolyze enough water to refuel a XEUS-sized lander in about 44 days. Transmitting power from a Peak of Persistent Illumination to the permanently-shadowed floor (or ice to power) can be done one of several ways.

    The most cost-effective lunar-derived propellant would be that used for lunar ascent where shipping it from Earth would cost a delta-v of 16 km/sec whereas on the Moon the delta-v would be zero (at the lunar surface). The purpose of that leg would be to reduce the cost of accessing the lunar surface for both cargo and crew. Keeping the teletobotic operations going on the Moon would mean shipping spare parts to be telerobotically swapped out (not repaired). A tonne of spare parts would keep operations going thereby producing many, many tonnes of propellant.

    A refueled lander could fly throughout cislunar space, dock with, and provide propulsion services to satellites, cargo, and crew modules. The delta-v from the Moon to LEO using aerobraking is about 3.2 km/sec using a fully reusable system whereas delivering the same propulsion service from Earth would be 9.5 – 10 km/sec and hopefully a fully reusable launch system will become available by then. Away from the lunar poles, lunar polar ice can be telerobitically driven to supply non-polar settlements. DevelopSpace.info.

  • Michael Halpern

    Yes there’s savings in the ∆v cost, (putting aside the fact that that water is in 2 very small regions of Luna exclusively) but I frankly don’t care about ∆v cost as much as I do $ cost. It can easily be cheaper to source your propellant from Earth if you don’t have the energy resources for gun launch which is actually feasible on Luna. You don’t need a lot of thrust for landing either, whatever qualifies for RCS may be sufficient.

  • Instead of delivering a tonne of propellant to the Moon, if one were to deliver a tonne of spare parts to keep the ice harvesting operations going, far more than one tonne of propellant would be produced. So, after the cost of initial set-up, propellant production would cost less than propellant delivery. My back-of-the-envelope calculations indicate that the $ cost would be about 1/30th than if delivering via BFR/SHS.

  • Michael Halpern

    You still have to operate that equipment that can only be used at the poles which won’t have everything economically interesting, and you are more likely to be able to make replacement parts (sans electronics) ISRU more easily anyways

  • Yes, there will be telerobotic operational costs. Propellant is the most economically interesting thing to start with. There’s stuff like thorium at Lalande Crater but that comes later. Reducing lander/ferry transport costs is #1.

    Making ISRU replacement parts on the Moon only makes lunar operations that much more cost effective. Lunar highlands has 1% nickel-iron micrometeorites bits which could be an early source of gross metals for some bulky parts.

    And yes, electronics will be shipped for a long time. Fortunately they are low mass.

  • P.K. Sink

    🙂

  • Michael Halpern

    And there’s the fact that propellant production is a support industry, without another industry to support, it will have no reason to exist where it isn’t strictly necessary. Tourism likes using infrastructure set up for other industries. In addition, unless you are escaping a difficult gravity well, cryogenics aren’t that useful outside of edge cases, they don’t keep well, they take up a lot of space and they generally produce excessive thrust and aren’t good at really short burns. Particularly true for LH2. They aren’t even that great for ISP when you compare to SEP, which is much more manageable.

  • The first goal should be to lower expenses which is what ISRU propellant is about. Lowering expenses helps government get more for its budget and increases market demand thereby helping businesses close their cases. But initially this should be a PPP for government reasons with commercial following after the transportation system is set up. Same thing as Commercisl Crew — govts first and private passengers later.

    Tourism will be the smaller market. Rather, international lunar exploration (national pride using very large budgets) as an interim market followed by private people moving to the Moon to be part of history (personal & family name significance) and then those people exploring the Moon because they are already there. So yes, propellant is secondary to other markets but a very important support function. A penny saved is a penny earned and market demand curves are not stratight. The lower the price the greater the overall profit (up to a point).

  • Do you accept that Cabeus Crater has, on average 5.6% water by mass? Do you know that the LCROSS results showed that the regolith there was fluffy? I agree that more prospecting needs to be done but do you accept the existing data?

  • Do you accept that Cabeus Crater has, on average 5.6% water by mass? Do you know that the LCROSS results showed that the regolith there was fluffy? I agree that more prospecting needs to be done but do you accept the existing data?

  • Michael Halpern

    No the first goal should be to make money, the ISRU may INCREASE prices as not everyone uses hydrolox

  • Michael Halpern

    One region. Not necessarily going to have other things to make money off of

  • Michael Halpern

    You lower expenses by reuse and eliminating unnecessary steps, the use case for lunar ISRU propellant (hydrolox at least) is enough of an edge case to be unnecessary.

  • Cryogenics keep well in lunar shadows on the Moon. And cryocoolers are proven tech. When flying in cis-lunar space, the ACES lander would perform its operation and return. No need to remain in cislunar space for months or even weeks. For ferry trips (Luna–>EML–>Luna) it would all be over between about 15 & 51 hours depending upon deceleration expenditure at EML1.