As NASA tries to land on the Moon, it has loads of rockets to select from

If you want to buy a commercial SLS launch, you also need to rent the mobile launcher from NASA.
Enlarge / If you wish to purchase a business SLS launch, you additionally must lease the cell launcher from NASA.


Final week, NASA held an “business day” for firms hoping to win lunar lander contracts from the federal government as a part of its Artemis program. In the course of the teleconference, business officers may ask questions on NASA’s plans for the way greatest to get astronauts from an orbit across the Moon, right down to the floor, and safely again.

After Vice President Mike Pence established the aim of touchdown people on the Moon by 2024, NASA officers have been working time beyond regulation all through the final six months to place collectively mission plans and architectures to fulfill this deadline. The trouble culminated within the launch final week of a solicitation that asks business for designs of a human touchdown system.

There’s a lot to digest on this doc, which accommodates three-dozen attachments and several other amendments. And business officers should reply shortly, with a Nov. 1 deadline to return proposals. After reviewing the submissions, NASA will award two or extra contracts that can permit corporations to maneuver into the ultimate design and improvement of Artemis Program lunar landers. The company want to have two totally different designs transfer ahead towards completion, believing that competitors will lead to sooner, higher . However this will not be attainable as a result of unsure funding from Congress.

The lander program asks plenty of the US aerospace business by way of know-how improvement and manufacturing in a brief time period. But one of many largest and most speedy questions every potential bidder should reply includes launch. How will they get their lander to lunar orbit?

This isn’t a simple query to reply, as a result of the selection of a launch car requires balancing political, technical, and price dangers. There are additionally as many as 5 potential selections—Falcon Heavy, Vulcan-Centaur, New Glenn, Area Launch System (SLS), and Starship Tremendous Heavy.

The duty at hand

The chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Alabama Republican Richard Shelby, has mandated that NASA use the company’s SLS rocket to launch the crewed Orion spacecraft to lunar orbit. However for the lunar lander—parts of which shall be pre-positioned in lunar orbit previous to the crew’s arrival—NASA has given contractors the flexibleness to decide on their very own launch car.

“We’re using a business design and improvement, end-to-end resolution for this demonstration, and launch automobiles fall in step with that,” stated Lisa Watson-Morgan throughout the business day assembly. She is managing the Human Touchdown System program for NASA. “The business suppliers shall procure a business launch car,” she added, noting that this car, and its prices, could be a part of every contractor’s proposal to NASA.

The three-stage lunar lander has modules that could fit on commercial launch vehicles.

The three-stage lunar lander has modules that would match on business launch automobiles.


Though it has professed an openness to different designs for a lander, NASA is primarily a three-stage lander that includes a “switch car” to take the lander from a excessive lunar orbit to a decrease one after which a “descent module” to hold the lander right down to the floor. Alongside the way in which, the crew rides in an “ascent module,” the place they stay throughout the lunar floor keep and through which they launch from the Moon’s floor again to the ready switch car.

NASA has estimated the mass values for every of those lander parts, as proven within the picture above. The general vary of the modules is between 9 and 15 metric tons, though clearly every contractor could suggest automobiles of no matter mass they really feel will get the job finished. The essential factor to glean from that is that, at a minimal, a heavy-lift rocket in all probability wants to have the ability to throw 10 tons into lunar orbit. A payload capability of 15 tons or extra may accommodate most lander parts.

One other key factor of that is timing. Throughout business day, Watson-Morgan stated NASA is nominally shifting towards demonstrations of lunar touchdown automobiles within the August 2024 time-frame. This implies they must be delivered to the neighborhood of the Moon earlier than then.

Human Landing System booster considerations.

Human Touchdown System booster issues.


The rockets themselves should both be licensed by NASA’s Launch Providers Program, have three profitable launches in the identical configuration, or be a business model of the SLS rocket. (We’ll have extra to say a few business model of the SLS rocket later.) To be viable for launching lander parts, Watson-Morgan stated, a proposed rocket should have met one in all these standards three months earlier than the “Flight Readiness Overview” of a mission. Successfully, this implies a business rocket should have flown three missions earlier than the spring of 2024 on the very newest.

With this fundamental understanding of technical and timing necessities for a rocket to launch a part of NASA’s lunar lander system to the Moon, let’s transfer on to the contenders.

Falcon Heavy

There is only one rocket accessible in the present day for NASA’s lunar wants—SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy booster. Not solely is the rocket licensed by NASA’s Launch Providers Program, it has additionally flown three profitable missions. Though it has not demonstrated a mission to lunar orbit, the rocket has a capability of no less than 15 tons to lunar orbit, per NASA’s launch vehicle calculator.

The Falcon Heavy has different benefits as nicely. Except it’s flown in totally expendable mode—which it could must be for a full 15 tons—its side-mounted boosters and doubtlessly its middle core might be reused. SpaceX additionally has the capability to scale up manufacturing if extra rockets are wanted. And it will likely be tough—if not inconceivable—for rivals to match Falcon Heavy pricing that begins at $90 million per launch.

For all of this, nonetheless, it isn’t clear how a lot different contractors will use the Falcon Heavy. Lots of the anticipated bidders for lunar lander parts have their very own rocket firms. Lockheed Martin, for instance, owns 50% of United Launch Alliance and would due to this fact be unlikely to accomplice with SpaceX.

SpaceX has additionally constructed a profitable mannequin primarily based on vertical integration. By not counting on conventional aerospace contractors, the corporate has been in a position to slash prices in addition to transfer shortly. On the identical time, contractors concerned in bidding for parts of the lunar lander could also be much less prepared to contract with SpaceX consequently.

What does appear clear is that if the 2024 schedule stays paramount, then the one sure-thing rocket that shall be able to fly by late 2023 or early 2024 is the Falcon Heavy.