We are returning to the Moon by 2024, declared Vice-President Mike Pence in a March 26th announcement and the program, NASA Administrator Bridenstine announced on May 13th will be called Project Artemis.
But, unlike previous efforts to return to the Moon that required years of development and construction of elements before actually flying, making them in reality dead-on-arrival, NASA and its contractors are today fortunately well along in building flight hardware for Artemis 1, our first lunar orbit mission, and until recently known as Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), as well as for Artemis 2, formerly Exploration Mission-2 (EM-2). Congress‘ consistency in pursuing space policy goals and supporting authorization law over the last 14 years, starting with the NASA Authorization Act of 20051 and continuing through 20082, 20103, and 20174, as well as annual appropriations from 2011 through 2019, has ensured that, as stated in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, “…[the] United State government has its own transportation to access space”5 in order to, as reaffirmed in the National Aeronautics And Space Administration Transition Authorization Act of 2017, promote its “…leadership in the exploration and utilization of space….”6
One thing missing from NASA’s current line-up to return astronauts to the Moon is a lander. To address this, NASA’s Human Landing System (HLS) was announced on April 26, 2019 with a solicitation for contractors to develop “…a Human Landing System (HLS) [as a] complete integrated lander….”. According to the announcement, the HLS is to consist of three parts; a Descent Element; an Ascent Element; a Transfer Element.
Buried in NASA’s NextSTEP-2 BAA Draft Appendix-H Virtual Industry Forum on July 23, 2019 (Pages 26, 35), and found as recently as an updated NextSTEP-2 Appendix H: Human Landing System DRAFT Broad Agency Announcement August 30, 2019 (Page 30, Sec. 126.96.36.199.4 Launch Operations), is the mandate that only commercial launchers could be used to deliver the mission-critical proposed lunar lander to Gateway.
That only commercial launchers would be allowed for launching mission critical, expensive lunar lander hardware was unexpected, arrived with no prior communication between NASA and the aerospace community about whether such an exclusive mandate of commercial launchers was even a rational idea, and caught many in the aerospace community, not to mention Congress, by surprise. Those in the aerospace community planning for future exploration of the Moon and beyond had expected that, “[t]he role of [the Space Launch System] in the [exploration] architecture is to transport items of extremely high value, including crew members and expensive integrated systems.”,7 at least until NASA’s Appendix-H BAA Draft landed. Because SLS is the only rocket capable of launching large elements, like an integrated lunar lander, there was a general assumption within the aerospace community that it would the default launcher for beyond-Earth exploration missions. When Congress balked at HLS’s commercial launcher mandate, NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Directorate claimed that the mandated use of commercial launchers is because, according to NASA studies, SLS production would not be able to keep up with demand. HEO promised to provide to Congress those studies justifying this claim, yet like an always sought-after but never seen snipe, such reports have yet to surface.
Several aerospace companies working on lander concepts for NASA’s future lunar surface activities had set their sights on single-stage, reusable landers that would act as testing grounds for developing and maturing technology needed to take astronauts to Mars, such as Lockheed Martin’s MADV, proposed in 2017. For example, on October 3, 2018 Lockheed Martin’s released a proposal for a single-stage crewed lunar lander.
In the accompanying white paper, Concept for a Crewed Lunar Lander Operating from the Lunar Orbiting Platform-Gateway, Lockheed Martin engineers describe in-depth their crewed lander as a fully reusable system that would incorporate flight-proven technologies and systems from NASA’s Orion spacecraft and have a dry, or empty, mass of 48,500 lbs (22MT). The Lockheed Martin engineers, acknowledging that, “Lunar lander missions and lunar exploration systems cannot simply become a point solution for the Moon…,”7, make the case for their single-stage, reusable lander as a building block towards future Mars vehicles that would be eventually tested on the Moon. According to Lockheed Martin, after NASA’s Appendix-H BAA Draft was released, that concept was shelved because the weight was far in excess of what any launcher, other than SLS, could launch to the Moon.
NASA’s Appendix-H BAA Draft not withstanding, launching “extremely high-value items, including crew members and expensive integrated systems” on some variant of SLS because, to state the obvious, NASA, the agency leading the charge to return to the Moon as a stepping stone to exploring Mars, is the owner, if you will, of SLS. One would think that the space agency would therefore want to amortize the development costs by using its own launcher for delivering extremely high value, expensive integrated systems, like a lunar lander. Additionally, crew-rating means reduced risk. The payload capabilities of the cargo variants of SLS range from 48,500 lbs (26MT) to nearly 100,000 lbs (45MT) respectively and therefore can transport heavy cargo of extremely high value, such as 48,500 lbs (22MT) single-stage lunar lander, in a single launch, unlike any other launcher available.
Commercial launcher lunar payload capabilities span from approximately 22,000 lbs (10MT) to SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy expendable version’s 33,000 lbs (15MT), although it has only actually delivered the 14,771 lbs (6.7MT) Intelsat 35e to geostationary transfer orbit (GTO).
|Launcher||TLI/Lunar Payload Capacity|
|Falcon Heavy||15 MT|
|New Glenn||12 MT|
|SLS Block 1A||26 MT|
|SLS Block 1B||37 MT|
|SLS Block 2||45 MT|
Whether the payload capability of commercial launchers to inject a payload onto a trajectory to the Moon is 11 tons (10MT) or 16.5 tons (15MT), there is still the niggling issue of getting the payload into orbit about the Moon and rendezvousing with Gateway. Recall that the two-person Apollo Lunar Module had a fueled mass of between 33,500 to 36,200 lbs (15.2MT to 16.4MT) upon arrival at its orbit of just 66 miles (100 km) above the Moon’s surface. Any Artemis lander arriving at the Moon will still need to rendezvous with Gateway, which will be in a near rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO). Orbit insertion into Gateway’s expected NRHO, likely ranging from 940 miles (1,514 km) to 43,037 miles (69,262 km) above the Moon’s surface, only requires a change of velocity, or delta-V, penalty of about 480 mph (215 m/s) penalty.
But there is a delta-V penalty none-the-less. And that means cargo sent to the Moon cannot be dry, or unfueled. Even a lightly “wet”, or fueled lander element means that the wet mass will move-out, or trade against, dry mass, which consists primarily of structural and tankage mass. Think ever smaller lunar lander elements and the accompanying diminished ability to host astronauts on the lunar surface, which means reduced science capabilities.
Lastly, there is nothing in the history of aerospace, or any other industry for that matter, that would give one the impression that cutting-up integrated system, driven by an unexpected reduction in transportation capability, results in time-savings, lower-costs, reduced risk, or any other good outcome. Even assuming that the lunar lander concepts that contractors have previously worked on can now be divvied-up into sufficiently small enough pieces so as not to exceed the limited payload capacity of commercial launchers, there are now other risks. For one, if one of the commercial launches of the lunar lander elements has an “event”, so much for that mission and the HSL elements already stationed at Gateway and boiling-off their cryogenic fuel. Taking a lesson from our last, and only, lunar program, during the Apollo program, NASA didn’t try to break-up the Apollo lunar lander module so a smaller launcher, say a Titan or Saturn 1B, could launch it to the Moon, but developed a launcher appropriate to the task. Congress has done that with SLS.
Yet, some would say that while there are risks and obvious payload inconveniences to using commercial launchers, the cost of doing so must out weight, or at least balance, those negatives. Though shocking it may be, the truth is that the commercial launcher route is not the money-saver that so many assume. Take the Falcon Heavy, which is, to state the obvious, the “heavy-hitter”, at 16.5 tons (15MT) when it comes to commercial launchers, and thus the likely choice for most HLS contractors searching for a commercial launch option. In a Tweet on February 12, 2018, Elon Musk disclosed a cost of $150 per FH expendable.
SpaceX also claims that Falcon Heavy can deliver 16.5 tons (15MT) to the Moon, which makes the cost per kilogram $10K/kg. But this claim must be taken with some serious reservations.
Past experience with Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contracts has shown that initial pricing quotes on commercial resupply launches by SpaceX can in subsequent contracts grow substantially while claimed cargo to be launched might experience underperformance. Between CRS-1 and CRS-2, cost, and therefore cost per kg, grew 50% for SpaceX, as detailed in NASA OIG Report IG-18-016. This means that SpaceX’s initial CRS-1 cost-per-mass grew from $80K/kg, as detailed in NASA OIG Report IG-13-016, to approximately $120K/kg for CRS-2. Strikingly, this price jump occurred despite SpaceX transitioning into reusability of its Cargo Dragon and Falcon 9. SpaceX’s cost growth was an outlier; between CRS-1 and CRS-2 Orbital Sciences’ prices actually decreased for its expendable Cygnus cargo vehicle and Antares rocket.
What’s more, in IG-13-016 report, the NASA OIG reported that Orbital Sciences claimed it would carry 2,700 kg while SpaceX claimed 2,500 kg per launch. Subsequently, in IG-18-016, NASA’s OIG reported that, “…Orbital ATK averaged 2,723 kg and SpaceX averaging 1,569 kg of pressurized upmass for last CRS-1 missions through 2017.” NASA’s OIG, in explaining SpaceX’s cost growth, wrote in IG-18-016 that SpaceX, “…indicated that their CRS-2 pricing reflected a better understanding of the costs involved after several years of experience with cargo resupply missions”. Yet, Orbital Sciences seemed more than capable in 2008 in understanding costs involved in launching cargo to ISS without needing years of experience. In any case, it is not unreasonable to worry that SpaceX’s claims that it can launch 16.5 tons (15MT) at $150M to the Moon will experience pricing increases and payload underperformance once the company has, “…a better understanding of the costs involved after several years of experience….”
All of this is to show that a 25%-50% cost increase of the currently quoted $150M for an expendable Falcon Heavy could actually occur and raise the price to $188M-$225M. It will take, at a minimum, three FH launchers to deliver into lunar orbit the same cargo mass as one SLS 1B. A cost increase of 25%-50% would mean that the total cost for delivering the lunar lander elements with three launches of the Falcon Heavy, the commercial launcher with the highest, if 16.5 tons (15MT) can be considered high, payload capacity, could grow from $450M to $563M-$675M. Lastly, it bears mentioning SpaceX’s history over the last four years of anomalies8 and its over-promises and under-deliveries in commercial cargo and crew9 might not exactly inspire great confidence that its entry into new endeavors, such as lunar cargo delivery, will be without occasional hiccups, ergo increased risk.
But isn’t that steep price much cheaper than the costs for an SLS that is bandied-about on the Twittersphere? In truth, the marginal cost for a dedicated cargo SLS 1A, which could launch all three HLS elements together, as a government funded equipment (GFE) rocket is $450M, according to a cost estimate that NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Directorate (HEO) provided to NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) for the Europa Clipper launch. At the very least, SLS is price competitive with the Falcon Heavy.
It was Congress that created, and for 9 years consistently maintained, our nation’s capabilities–Orion, SLS. and Ground Systems–that today enable a lunar exploration program to begin in the near future. As in 2010, it now seems that it is up to Congress to fix another situation created by NASA headquarters. One quick remedy would be to send NASA’s HEO, and in particular its Human Lunar Exploration Programs office, back to the drawing board.
Fundamentally, it begs the question of why solicitation authoring and management, as well as source selection, does not rest with the actual person tasked with managing the Human Landing Systems program, Lisa Watson-Morgan. Instead, according to the NASA NextSTEP-2 Omnibus BAA Amendment document (p. 17 Sec. 5.3), source selection currently rests with the Director for the Advanced Exploration Systems Division for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, located at NASA headquarters. That should change. After all, with great fanfare, on August 16th, NASA Administrator Bridenstine announced that Marshall Space Flight Center would host the Human Landing System (HLS) Program office, with Lisa Watson-Morgan named its head. She, and her team, are closest to the problem, contractors, and the technology and should be given free reign to select awards and manage the HLS, just as John Honeycutt, SLS program manager, and Mark Kirasich, Orion program manager, do.
Another remedy would be to allow the contractors the freedom to develop their lander concepts free of any mandates regarding launcher, whether commercial or SLS. It is reasonable to expect that contractors developing lander proposals are fully capable of choosing the best launcher to meet their needs. It should go without saying that, by mandating the use of any launcher, commercial or otherwise, NASA headquarters is dictating the launcher technology first, which forces the contractors to back-up their lander design to meet that mandate. That is putting things backwards and is antithetical to Steve Jobs’ point that the user experience, or product, not technology, should come first. Stipulating commercial launchers handcuffs contractors as they work to develop lunar lander concepts that not only safely deliver astronauts to the Moon’s surface but also build hardware and software experience useful for later exploration of the beyond.
Lastly, should a contractor’s proposal include SLS to deliver the lunar lander payload to Gateway, it should be NASA, not the contractor, that acquires the launcher since the space agency owns the SLS program. Otherwise, contractors will face a multi-year process of dealing directly with a medusa of SLS contractors needed to “buy” an SLS, making the freedom to choose the launcher a mere charade.
NASA headquarters has a not-so-distant history of making dramatic changes to programs without first consulting with industry and others in the aerospace community. It is hard to fathom how NASA’s mandate handcuffing HLS contractors to less performant and more risky commercial launchers, rather than at the very least allowing them the freedom to let their lander design dictate the launcher, promotes and motivates developments enabling the U.S. to send astronauts to Mars and beyond. Rather, one can make the case that such a mandate instead makes the HLS program barely more than a one-off lunar program. In today’s vernacular, the mandate would be considered a bug, not a feature.
- NASA Authorization Act of 2005, Title I, Sec. 101, (b) (PL 109-155; 42 USC 16611) ↩︎
- NASA Authorization Act of 2008, Title IV, Sec. 402 (1), Sec. 403 (PL 110–422; 42 USC 17731) ↩︎
- NASA Authorization Act of 2010, Title III, Sec 301 (PL 111-267; 42 USC 18321) ↩︎
- NASA Transition Authorization Act Of 2017, (PL 115-10; 131 STAT. 21 ↩︎
- “While commercial transportation systems have the promise to contribute valuable services, it is in the United States national interest to maintain a government operated space transportation system for crew and cargo delivery to space.”, NASA Authorization Act of 2010, Sec 2 (9) (PL 111-267; 124 STAT. 2808; 42 USC 18301 (9)) ↩︎
- “In order to ensure continuous United States participation and leadership in the exploration and utilization of space and as an essential instrument of national security, it is the policy of the United States to maintain an uninterrupted capability for human space flight and operations”, NASA Transition Authorization Act Of 2017 (PL 115-10; 131 STAT. 35; 51 USC 50101 ↩︎
- Concept for a Crewed Lunar Lander Operating from the Lunar Orbiting Platform-Gateway (page 4) ↩︎
- SpX-7 (June 28, 2015), Amos-6 (September 1, 2016), Crew Dragon abort test explosion (April 20, 2019), Crew Dragon parachute test failure (spring 2019) ↩︎
- Gwynne Shotwell testimony before Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee, March 25, 2010, “SpaceX firmly believes that we can get astronauts to the International Space Station within three years of contract award largely based on the fact that our Dragon capsule was designed from the inception to carry crew with minor upgrades from our cargo vehicle.”(1:44-2:00) ↩︎