HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — NASA has reinstated plans to include a lunar landing in its Artemis 4 mission to the moon later this decade, months after it said the mission would be devoted to assembling the lunar portal.
In an Oct. 28 presentation at the American Astronautical Society’s Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium here, Mark Kirasich, deputy associate administrator for development of the Artemis campaign at NASA, described the series of Artemis missions on the books for NASA through the end of the decade of 2020. This included Artemis 4, which he described as the “second time humans land on the moon” under Artemis after the Artemis 3 mission.
However, earlier this year Kirasich and other NASA officials said that NASA did not plan to include a lunar landing on Artemis 4. Instead, they said the complexity of the mission, which would include delivering the I-Hab housing module to Gateway in the first flight of the upgraded Block 1B version of the Space Launch System, ruled out landing on the Moon.
Kirasich confirmed after the panel that NASA had decided to include a re-landing on Artemis 4. The mission would likely use the “Option B” version of SpaceX’s Starship lander, he said.
NASA announced in March that it would pursue the Human Landing System (HLS) Option B contract with SpaceX, which initially covered an Option A lander that SpaceX will demonstrate on the Artemis 3 mission. Option B would fund changes to Starship lander to support more ambitious missions in the later “sustainable” phase of Artemis and would include a second demonstration mission.
NASA announced it would fund Option B at the same time it unveiled the Sustaining Lunar Development (SLD) effort to select a second lunar lander for these later missions. Kirasich said it would be unlikely that the craft selected in that program would be ready in time for Artemis 4, and would instead be introduced on Artemis 5.
In a timeline released as part of the agency’s fiscal year 2023 budget proposal in March, days after the SLD program was announced, NASA projected an Artemis 4 launch in 2027, but without a lunar landing. The same program expects Artemis 3 to launch no earlier than 2025, with Artemis 5 to follow in 2028 as part of an annual mission cadence
That date, however, will depend on many factors. One is the readiness of the Option B version of the Starship lander. During another panel at the symposium, NASA and SpaceX officials said they were making good progress on the landing, but provided few technical details or a timeline.
Rene Ortega, chief HLS engineer at NASA, praised SpaceX for giving the agency access to hardware and test data from the overall Starship launch vehicle development effort. “It’s a big deal,” he said. “It’s one of the practices I’ve been impressed with.”
The Artemis 4 program will also depend on the readiness of the I-Hab module, which is being developed by Europe and Japan, and the SLS Block 1B itself. This version of SLS, which uses the more powerful Exploration Upper Stage, in turn requires a new mobile launcher platform, Mobile Launcher (ML) 2.
NASA officials, including Administrator Bill Nelson, have been unusually public in criticizing the ML-2 prime contractor, Bechtel, for major cost overruns and schedule delays. “Right now, Mobile Launcher 2 is the critical path to Artemis 4,” Jeremy Parsons, associate director of NASA’s Exploration Ground Systems program, said during another conference on Oct. 27. “It’s something we’re working on very intensively in the program. “
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NASA is currently seeking proposals for the SLD program, formally known as Annex P of the Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships, or NextSTEP, effort. NASA issued the call for proposals on September 16 with an initial deadline of November 15. NASA moved the deadline from Oct. 21 to Dec. 6 to give the agency more time to consider requests from companies to use government facilities.
During a conference panel session Oct. 28, NASA and several companies declined to discuss details about the SLD procurement because it was ongoing, including whether they would submit a proposal and, if so, who they were working with. However, they discussed work on a separate NextSTEP effort, Annex N, to support work on viable lunar landing technologies. NASA selected five companies in September 2021 for $146 million worth of studies on key technologies for such craft.
Some of the companies have used their Annex N awards to continue work on ideas they proposed in the original HLS competition. “Dynetics felt like we had a very viable landing approach even in the baseline period, so we really appreciated the opportunity to further mature this design during Annex N,” said Andy Crocker, HLS program manager at Dynetics.
He said the company is working on about 20 different tasks related to reducing risks in the landing design, including the lander’s engine, which uses liquid oxygen and methane propellants. The company conducted a static fire test of that engine a week earlier, he noted.
“I think it helped continue the momentum that we built under the baseline period,” said Ben Cichy, senior director of lunar program engineering at Blue Origin, of its activities at Annex N. That included work to manage cryogenic fluids for the hydrogen fuel used in the BE-7 engine, as well as precision landing and dust mitigation technologies.
Blue Origin competed for the Option A award eventually won by SpaceX as part of a so-called “National Team” that included Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, two companies that won separate Annex N awards. Those companies are considering different approaches to lunar landings .
“Under Annex N, we’ve been given a great opportunity to step back and take a look at everything that’s been developed since the Apollo missions,” said John Marzano, Northrop’s HLS program manager, “and basically choose what we believe that it is a series. of the best possible features of each of these different concepts’.
He said the company is considering two parallel efforts for lunar lander engines. One is an internal project leverage experience dating back to TRW, which developed an engine for the Apollo lunar rover. The other is an engine from Sierra Space. The aircraft, he said, would use stored propellants rather than cryogenics.
Kirk Shireman, vice president of the lunar exploration campaign at Lockheed Martin, said his company is looking at integrating nuclear thermal propulsion into the architecture of landers as key to future human exploration of Mars. “Having a high-thrust, high-Isp engine is really key to our future,” he said. Isp, or specific impulse, is a measure of an engine’s efficiency.
He said the company is working on technologies such as cryogenic fluid management, fuel testing and turbopump design. He later said that the nuclear propulsion system would be used for transit between the Earth and the Moon.
“We were able to continue our partnership that we built under the HLS core contract period,” he said of the company’s work with NASA. “It continues the great work, the great relationship, that we’ve had through Annex N so that we can hopefully continue it under Annex P whenever that happens.”