Back to the Moon

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is planning to put the first female on the Moon along with another male by 2024. NASA’s goal with this set of missions is to establish a permanent human outpost on the south pole of the Moon. The crew for Artemis III, the first mission in the program to land on the Moon, is currently undecided. However, NASA has trained 11 potential candidates for the program from the U.S. as well as two candidates from the Canadian Space Administration (CSA). The current plan is to use NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) with the Orion crew module to bring the astronauts to the south pole of the Moon by 2024. NASA is still considering using a commercial rocket if one is available before the SLS launch vehicle is ready. If NASA does use the SLS and Orion, it will launch from Launch Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Centre, Cape Canaveral, Florida. There are many setbacks related to NASA contract types and other issues, so NASA is not sure of a launch date yet.

This timeline is theoretically possible, but NASA has hired private companies to do lots of the work on the Artemis program, which makes this much more difficult. The reason for this is that NASA used Cost-Plus contracts when hiring companies. These contracts set a budget for the companies to use but also guarantee that NASA will pay for any extra costs. As a result of this contract, companies, especially Boeing, have not been trying to get work done on time and this is costing NASA lots of money. It has also pushed back the launch date for the SLS and Orion to the point where the first stage boosters have not been finished and the original launch date was June 2020.

The main body of NASA’s Space Launch System is shown here being built in a Boeing facility in New Orleans, Louisiana.

The ship NASA is planning on using, if Boeing finishes on time, is the Space Launch System (SLS) with the new Orion crew module to get the crew to lunar orbit. Boeing is supposed to be manufacturing the hull of the ship, as well as many internal components, but is severely behind schedule. If Boeing takes too long, then NASA will consider using deep space vehicles from private companies, including SpaceX’s Starship and Blue Origin’s New Glenn. Both companies develop their ships very quickly and there is a good chance that they will be ready before SLS.

The Space Launch System is a NASA spaceship that has been in development since 2014 but is not yet completed. Boeing is the main contractor, building most of the rocket for NASA in New Orleans, Louisiana. When completed, the SLS should be able to lift 8.8 million pounds into orbit around the Moon. In comparison, the most powerful rocket in the world, the Saturn V, could lift 90,000 pounds into lunar orbit. When the SLS is eventually completed it will be a very powerful rocket that could bring lots of supplies for a lunar outpost or space station. This ship cannot land on the Moon itself like SpaceX’s Starship and will require a lander to go with it. 

For the Artemis program, NASA will be hiring a private company to design and build the lunar lander, the part of the ship (or another ship) that brings two members of the crew from orbit down to the surface of the Moon. The three companies in the running are SpaceX, Dynetics, and Blue Origin. SpaceX has submitted Starship, their version of SLS, as a lunar lander for crew and cargo. However, this version of Starship will be different. It will not have the large fins like the current version and will also have landing jets about halfway up the ship for a propulsive landing on the Moon. The entire ship will return from the Moon and be reusable. Starship is also a lander and rocket in one, so there is not another booster needed like there is on other designs. Blue Origin is the lead company for the national team, which is making an Apollo-style lunar lander with a tug stage to drag it about the landing location. At this point, the tug will detach and the lander will use retro thrusters, thrusters to soften the landing, to have a smooth descent to the surface. When the surface time for the mission is over, the crew will climb back into the top section of the lander, which will lift off leaving the lower half with the landing struts behind to save weight. That accent stage will then dock with the spacecraft or eventually a space station orbiting the Moon. The last proposal is Dynetics, which will make a short, wide lander launched on an SLS exploration upper stage or on multiple Vulcan rockets. The lander will be so wide because of the two propellant tanks on each side of the pressure vessel. By the time the lander reaches the Lunar surface, it will have dropped the outer tank on each side. The entire lander (other than the two fuel tanks) will return to lunar orbit to be picked up by the spacecraft or dock with the gateway space station.

Artemis is so far looking like it can be a very successful program if Boeing will start trying to finish SLS on time. Otherwise, there is still a chance that we will get to the Moon by 2024 using commercial rockets. Based on what is now known, there is a good chance of making it to the Moon but the vehicle used is still uncertain.

Sean Harren, Staff Writer

Freshman Sean Harren is a staff writer for the 2020-2021 Colonel. He plays soccer and lacrosse. In his free time, he enjoys sailing and CAD modeling/3D printing.

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