Boeing has submitted its proposal to NASA for a lunar lander concept that the company claims will return Americans to the Moon in 2024 with the “fewest steps” possible.
Under orders from President Trump, NASA is working to deliver American astronauts to the Moon by 2024. Since late September, the space agency has been soliciting proposals for a human lunar lander system to be used in this program, called Artemis.
To date, NASA has received one formal proposal, namely a pitch from a collaboration consisting of Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman. SpaceX is reportedly working on something, too, but nothing formal has been made public. We can now add another player to the mix, as Boeing submitted a proposal yesterday for an integrated human lander system (HLS).
Key aspects of the proposal include a single launch via NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS)—also under development by Boeing—an integrated lander that will rendezvous with astronauts waiting in lunar orbit, and a descent stage capable of independently delivering itself from lunar orbit to the surface.
According to Boeing, the single SLS launch of the integrated Descent Element and Ascent Element is meant to streamline the mission and improve crew safety. The aerospace company says its plan will require five “mission critical events” as opposed to 11 or more, as specified in competing plans.
That said, Boeing’s plan is contingent on the completion of the SLS Block 1B (a version of SLS that will use two five-segment solid rocket boosters), which is currently under development at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility.
When asked to comment on whether SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy could serve as a suitable substitute, a Boeing spokesperson told Gizmodo that’s not likely. The Falcon Heavy “has a much smaller lifting capacity than SLS Block 1B,” the spokesperson said. “Our HLS design reduces risk by keeping the lander in one piece for a single launch rather than breaking it into smaller parts to fit on small launchers,” adding that mission risks would be heightened if small segments were launched on multiple missions, requiring the lander to be assembled in space.
“We went with a ‘Fewest Steps to the Moon’ strategy because that is where the engineering took us,” said the spokesperson. “That approach also has been a guiding principle to successful human spaceflight. That means using the most capable rocket which means Space Launch System.”
Well, a “most capable rocket” that technically doesn’t yet exist. The SLS program is woefully behind schedule, with its inaugural launch now slated for 2021.
Boeing’s plan would also add some flexibility to the Artemis mission, not to mention potential cost savings, in that astronauts will be able to depart for the lunar surface from either the Lunar Gateway (which is the current plan) or NASA’s Orion spacecraft. This means the proposed $US504 ($733) million Lunar Gateway—a yet-to-be constructed outpost in lunar orbit—is not an essential requirement for the Artemis program. This strategy will allow for “the fastest path to lunar flights while providing a robust platform that can perform NASA’s full range of exploration missions,” according to Boeing.
Another key benefit of Boeing’s strategy is that the descent stage would be able to independently transport itself from lunar orbit to the surface without requiring an added third stage, namely a space tug.
To develop the HLS system, Boeing will rely on technologies developed for its CST-100 Starliner spacecraft, including engines, materials, and the automated landing and docking system (Starliner is similar to NASA’s Orion spacecraft, and it’ll be capable of carrying crews of up to seven people). The first Boeing lander would use hypergolic propellant and be single use, according to the Boeing spokesperson, which means the Descent Element will remain on the lunar surface. Looking further ahead to future Artemis missions, later Boeing landers “will use other fuel sources and include reusable elements,” said the spokesperson.
Needless to say, this all depends on which company NASA chooses to build the Artemis lander, a decision we should expect in the months ahead.