Check Out NASA’s New Toy: A Full-Scale Replica of Blue Origin’s Lunar Lander

Check Out NASA’s New Toy: A Full-Scale Replica of Blue Origin’s Lunar Lander
A mockup of Blue Origin's lunar lander. (Image: Blue Origin)

A team led by Blue Origin has delivered a full-scale mockup of the lunar lander that could carry NASA astronauts to the Moon in 2024.

American astronauts will supposedly be taking strolls on the lunar surface in four years (which is an extremely ambitious timeline), but NASA still needs a lunar lander to make it happen.

The space agency has turned to the private sector for help, tapping the shoulders of Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Dynetics and handing out $US579 ($810) million, $US135 ($189) million, and $US253 ($354) million to the firms, respectively. That’s a combined $US967 million ($1.35 billion) for NASA partners to develop a human landing system for the Artemis Moon mission.

Blue Origin, founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, has taken a giant leap in this intranational space race by delivering a full-scale mockup of its lunar lander to NASA. Though to be fair, SpaceX and Dynetics are very much still in the running, as the space agency wants to acquire multiple solutions to maximise flexibility. The design approved for the Artemis I mission, however, will represent NASA’s first Moon lander since the Apollo Lunar Module.

Blue Origin, as the prime contractor, is leading the team responsible for the Integrated Lander Vehicle (ILV). Known as the National Team, it includes Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper.

The 12.19 m-tall (12-metre) replica of ILV will be housed at NASA’s Space Vehicle Mockup Facility at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas. From now until early 2021, NASA engineers will conduct a number of tests and simulations with the model.

“The learning we get from full-scale mockups can’t be done any other way,” explained Brent Sherwood, vice president of Advanced Development Programs at Blue Origin, in a company statement. “Benefitting from NASA’s expertise and feedback at this early stage allows us to develop a safe commercial system that meets the agency’s needs.”

NASA and the National Team can now evaluate this particular approach; the lander must be capable of delivering crew, equipment, and supplies to the lunar surface and then taking off again.

“Augmenting state-of-the-art tools with physically being able to see, interact, and evaluate a full-up lander in person is critical,” said Kirk Shireman, vice president of Lunar Campaigns at Lockheed Martin Space. “It will inform our design and requirements earlier in the program allowing us to accelerate our development and meet the 2024 lunar landing goal.”

Blue Origin hopes to fly the final system “within several years,” which, given the 2024 timeline, will be cutting it close.

ILV has a modular design to hasten progress, as each segment can be tested and refined separately, without negatively impacting the vehicle as a whole. The system consists of three distinct elements: The Transfer Element, the Descent Element, and the Ascent Element.

Northrop Grumman is working on the Transfer Element, which will dispatch the lander from lunar orbit, sending it on its way to the lunar surface. The company is relying on technology from its Cygnus vehicle, which is used to deliver supplies to the International Space Station.

Blue Origin is building the Descent Element, which will combine the company’s Blue Moon cargo lander and its BE-7 LOX/hydrogen engine, both of which have been in development for over three years.

Lockheed Martin is working on the Ascent Element, which is where the crew will be working. The Ascent Element includes avionics, software, a life-support system, and crew controls. The Orion spacecraft, also built by Lockheed Martin, will also take part in the Artemis mission. Draper will provide the avionics for the lander’s descent guidance.

So Blue Origin’s solution for a human landing system appears to be coming together, even if it’s still early days. Only time will tell if this solution is the best fit for NASA’s Artemis mission and if the National Team can meet the demanding timelines.