Lockheed Wants To Build The Next Lunar Lander

The United States is going back to the moon, and it’s happening sooner than you would think. NASA is going back to the moon in 2024, and they might just have the support of Congress to do so.

Getting to the moon is one thing, and since SpaceX launched a car to the asteroid belt, this future of boots on the moon after Apollo seems closer than ever before. But what about landing on the moon? There’s only ever been one Lunar Lander that has taken people down to the moon and brought them back again, and it’s doubtful that design will be used again. Now, Lockheed has their own plan for landing people on the moon, and they might be able to do it by 2024.

The Mission

Currently, NASA’s plan to put a man on the moon revolves around a plan that is entirely unlike Apollo. Instead of sending a command module and a lunar lander for a one-off journey to the surface of the moon, future astronauts will arrive to the moon by first going through a gateway. This Lunar Gateway is a space station in a weird orbit that looks like a highly eccentric polar orbit around the moon, with an orbital period of between six and eight days. Mathematically, it’s an orbit around an Earth-Moon Lagrange point and does take a bit more fuel to access than a purely lunar orbit. However, this orbit is extremely favorable for many things that aren’t lunar landings. First, the orbit allows for continuous communication with Earth, and can serve as a relay for operations on the far side of the moon. The entire surface of the moon is accessible from this orbit, unlike the Apollo missions which could only access the low latitudes of the moon. This last point is especially important, as there are plans to put boots on the South Pole of the moon, which has proven reserves of water ice. But to get to the surface, you need a lander, and there are a lot of options available.

The Lander

The Altair lander Image Source

Over the past 10 or 15 years, there have been many proposals for the next generation of spacecraft to land on the moon. The first, and biggest, was an outgrowth of the Constellation Program. The Altair lunar lander was a massive, three-story-tall vehicle capable of supporting four astronauts on the moon for a week. There’s an airlock, unlike the Apollo lunar lander, and a cargo variant would be able to put almost fifteen tons of equipment, habitat modules, or supplies anywhere on the surface of the moon. The Altair is an exceptional vehicle, but after the Constellation program was cancelled in 2010, plans for the lander died on the vine.

In the years since the cancellation of the Constellation program, the plans for a lunar lander have evolved. No longer will astronauts repeat the mission profile of Apollo by flying off to the moon, docking with a lander on the way, entering an equatorial orbit around the moon, heading down to the surface, going back up again, and finally heading back to Earth. The plan now is for a lunar gateway, and this requires a different type of lander.

Currently, Lockheed Martin is working on an Orion-based lander concept that is well suited to getting to the moon through a lunar gateway. The lunar part of this lander is about what you would expect — there’s a decent module with a big engine and spider-like legs. On top, there are living quarters that also have an engine to return to lunar orbit. Unlike other plans which involve what is effectively a three-stage lander (with the first stage used to get the craft to the moon), the Lockheed lander will be two stages, based on common parts, and be able to bring a lot of mass down to the lunar surface.

Is It Actually Possible To Build This?

Lockheed’s lander is a proposed lunar lander that will allow astronauts to put bootprints on the moon within about five years or so. That’s not a lot of time, especially when it comes to aerospace. Nevertheless, NASA thinks this can happen by 2024. Is it actually possible to build a lunar lander in such a short amount of time? History says yes.

The development of the original Lunar Lander started in late 1962, with the NASA contract going to Grumman. The design goal for this lunar lander was simply to take two astronauts down to the surface of the moon and return to lunar orbit; the implementation was very much open to interpretation because no one quite knew how to build a lunar lander. The design was set in 1963, with Grumman building the first test landers, and in March of 1969, the Lunar Module actually flew, with astronauts inside, with Apollo 9. The Lunar Module would orbit the moon two months later with Apollo 10, and two months after that, Apollo 11 would perform the first manned mission to the surface of the moon. The design, development, testing, and launch of the first Lunar Lander was only six or seven years, and that’s starting from scratch.

It may very well be possible to build a Lunar Lander to arrive on the moon by 2024. We have computers now, and we know you don’t need gigantic windows. Engines already exist, and space has become commoditized. There are earlier designs to draw from. Still, Rob Chambers, director of human space exploration strategy for Lockheed Martin, says “We need to be bending metal next year”. Someday soon, and maybe sooner than we think, there may be a Lunar Lander assembly line, ready to take cargo and crew back to the moon.

39 thoughts on “Lockheed Wants To Build The Next Lunar Lander

    1. And that’s just the estimate to get the project going and contracts awarded. You know it’ll be delayed by a decade or two, overrun the initial cost estimates by at least 3x and ultimately be canceled altogether. Corporate welfare for the win!

  1. ” Mathematically, it’s an orbit around an Earth-Moon Lagrange point and does take a bit more fuel to access than a purely lunar orbit. ”

    No, that’s wrong – an NRHO takes less fuel to get to than a low lunar orbit. This isn’t surprising, as it’s close to a Lagrange point so it’s basically at “zero potential energy” in the Earth/Moon system. Since the Moon doesn’t have an atmosphere, exiting Earth’s potential well and entering the Moon’s must take more than getting to a Lagrange point (no aerobraking).

    The orbits back this up: It essentially takes *zero* fuel to get to from translunar injection (under 0.02 km/s) if you don’t need to go fast (ballistic transfer). TLI to LLO takes ~1 km/s or so. Even if you want to get there *fast*, TLI to NRHO is only about half that.

    It takes more fuel to “pit-stop” at NRHO if you’re going from the Earth to the Moon’s surface directly and don’t do anything except wait at NRHO (i.e. TLI->NRHO->surface vs. TLI->LLO->surface). But that would obviously be insane – you could leave reusable portions of the lunar transport there, you can do assembly there, and you can refuel there. That’s the entire point of a staging/assembly orbit.

    Any of those lowers the overall delta-V cost using ballistic transfer. Imagine Apollo if they didn’t actually need to bring the LM with them: if they just went to the Moon in the command module, docked at a station there, and took the LM down to the Moon and back. (Yes, obviously, that wouldn’t exactly work, since they left the descent portion of the LM on the surface, but you get the idea).

    Having a station in an orbit where you can do staging/assembly is critical for a sustainable lunar presence, and NRHOs have advantageous stability properties. The other features (continuous line-of-sight with Earth, easy access to the lunar south pole) are pretty much just gravy.

    1. Out of curiosity, why can’t you just leave stuff in lunar orbit to do the refueling and assembly and all the other stuff you mentioned? What’s the advantage to parking it in NRHO instead?

      1. Because then you have to pay the delta-V for *everything* to get to LLO, including stuff that you don’t need to get to the Moon’s surface – like the Earth reentry vehicle (or the humans monitoring the other humans on the surface).

        Now you might not think this is a big deal, since the majority of the mass is needed to get to the lunar surface anyway. Except most of that mass doesn’t need to get there *fast*. Again, in the Apollo case, imagine if they went to the Moon in *just* the landing capsule, and met up with the service module and the LM (with its fuel!) already in orbit around the Moon.

        You might say “big deal, they still had to get there” – but the big advantage of using Lagrange orbits is that they’ve basically got the same fundamental delta-V from LEO as TLI, so it’s cheap to send cargo there: you need a TLI insertion burn at the beginning, and then you ditch the engine and get to NRHO with minimal delta-V and a good computer. Trying to do the same assembly at LLO means you need a sizable engine to do the LOI burn, no matter what. There’s no “cheap transfer” into a low lunar orbit.

        The specific choice of *which* type of halo orbit to build staging/assembly/refueling infrastructure at is pretty complicated, as there are a lot of factors to balance: delta-V, stability, travel time, and lunar access. An L2 NRHO is a good compromise, since it still has a low delta-V from TLI, has bounded stability (so the orbit’s stability degrades slowly, giving time to recover if a maneuver is missed), has short travel time to the Moon, so the life support infrastructure needed for lunar descent is small, and has continuous coverage with Earth.

      2. Lower orbits take less energy to get up to from the surface of the moon, which would be good. And without atmosphere, ridiculously low orbits, like low enough to reach out and rip a hand off trying to snag a rock from a mountain peak low, are possible, but they mostly won’t work for long term use.

        Google frozen orbits

        The moon’s density is ‘lumpy’. It has mass concentrations or masscons. Below a certain altitude there are only three, maybe four, orbit inclinations that are stable. At any other inclination an object in orbit will “shake out” of orbit and crash into the surface in weeks to a few days. An object in one of the “frozen” orbits can stay there for months to years without expending any maneuvering fuel.

        This lunar fun feature was accidentally discovered when an early pair of orbiting probes were sent to the moon. One of them just happened to slip almost precisely into one of the good inclinations, the first discovered “frozen” orbit. It stayed there for months. Its twin wasn’t so lucky, IIRC the moon’s lumpy gravity took it down in a couple of weeks.

        So if you want to stash stuff in lunar orbit and have it stay there without spending $ on station keeping fuel, it has to be high enough that you may as well put it at a Lagrange point, because those three or four stable low orbits will be much sought after.

        Another problem with orbiting the moon is its center of mass is off-center. It’s 1.2 miles closer to the far side. So assume you could have a surface skimming equatorial orbit. It would only be that on the near side. On the far side the altitude would increase to 1.2 miles higher above the surface.

        It’s like the moon was made by an insane space game designer. “Ha! I’d like to see the players try to low orbit this!”

    2. That’s what I was thinking. The first couple of trips could take complete lunar landers. But after that the launches could only carry the descent stages, to be docked to the reusable ascent stages. Without needing to lift a new ascent stage with every launch, either the rockets could use less fuel, or they could lift the mass of the ascent stage more stuff.

      If it proves possible to make fuel on the moon, then SSTLO moon landers could be sent.

      1. Fuel on the moon probably isn’t that big a deal if the heavy lift market becomes as robust as expected on Earth. The effective value of volatiles on the Moon is *huge* – expending them probably isn’t smart. Once you’ve got a staging/assembly/refueling depot, you’re not fighting the rocket equation anymore. The mass that you’re taking up/down from the Moon is already small, so you don’t need a lot of fuel.

        I mean, a Falcon Heavy can lift several tons of fuel to TLI for $100M, it’s really not that big a deal.

        In the “crazy far future” dream world, you could also imagine building a tether from the lunar surface to either L1 or L2. Lunar tethers to Lagrange points are buildable with current technology (kevlar would do it) as opposed to Earth tethers, which need unobtainium. Then you wouldn’t even need *fuel* to get to/from an NRHO to the lunar surface.

  2. Who are Lockheed? They don’t exist.

    If you want to be taken seriously as a technology journalist (and your post rate seems to suggest so), then get your facts correct. The company that you are referring to is Lockheed Martin and is very particular on the name being used correctly, never shortened to just Lockheed.

        1. Anyone who pays attention to the engineering industry, really. Being ignorant of Lockheed would almost be like not knowing who Boeing is. You’d really have to be living under a rock.

  3. While I can’t wait to see men on the moon again but considering that men first landed on the moon before I was born and haven’t been there in nearly 50 friggin’ years I’ll believe it when I see it.

  4. I think sending machines to gather materials either autonomously, or vial remote control from earth, and construction of extremely basic structures, at least ones to help protect astronauts from eventual solar flares, CMEs and possible micrometeorites. I’m thinking along the lines of a 3D solar printer focusing sunlight to fuse, or possibly refine, moon dust to make sheets of shielding material. The composition of lunar soil is expected to be Oxygen (42%), Silicon(21%), Iron (13%), Calcium (8%), Aluminium(7%), Magnesium(6%), Other (3%) – (ref: page 14 of https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/20090010050.pdf ) – So a basic glass, ceramic or metal material is possible with gravity and enough energy. A waste product could be oxygen production. Unless the plan is purely for a quick visit and then back home again.

        1. Mind you, you would need to do all the focusing with something like a foldable parabolic mirror however as a lenses of the required size I imagine would be to large and heavy to fire off to the moon.

      1. Gross simplification (~25 J/(mol·K)) using “Physical properties” data for each element from Wikipedia and some really quick and extremely dirty back of the envelope maths. To raise the temperature of less than 60 gram of material from ~400K (lunar daytime temperature (~123 C, ~253 F)) to the highest melting point (~200K) using only solar power (1367.6 Watts per meter squared (or joule per second per meter squared) ) in under 1 second would require approximately 30 meters of mirrors focusing light to a small point. The nice thing about the moon is no oxygen so mirrors (if charged to repel dust) can be extremely efficient and made out of thin foils that would oxidise instantly on earth. If you can melt the material just long enough for gravity to separate some of the constituents into layers ( a bit like air, floating on oil, floating on water, floating on soil) you may be able to separate some of the elements just by melting in gravity.

        I’m not saying that it is simple, but it is definitely not rocket science. I suspect that you are thinking of a complex robot that would behave like a human, where as I am thinking along the lines of basic dirt manipulation machines: remote controlled solar powered bulldozer, excavator and dumpster trucks. Start basic, think about what is possible and expand. Everything that is truly complex begins life as many simple things.

        I’m not even saying that it is definitely possible, just that I would start prep work by machines years before attempting to send humans, if something goes wrong, send another machine and another. If the first generation of machines are dumb and just do one task well, fantastic. The next generation of machine sent has better raw materials to start processing. You do not need to be building digital watches with the first generation of machines, but if you manage to get 36% pure silicon that would be a single footstep in the right direction.

  5. I have little doubt Lockheed Martin can build a lunar lander but I don’t think it would be ready quickly or cheaply.
    For a lunar lander in such a short time frame I’d go with the Masten Space Systems Xeus lander which is based on a modified Centaur stage.

  6. I would bet any amount of money that Lockheed Martin or anybody isn’t going to land Americans on the Moon by 2024. Has anybody watched how manned spacecraft systems happen these days?

    Yes, they did it in the 1960s pretty fast. You know, back when they were in a fierce race and could cut whatever corners they wanted to. Back before seatbelts and airbags and bike helmets were invented. When lawn darts were fun toys. That era.

  7. Since even the first launch of the SLS isn’t going to happen until 2021 at the earliest (Was supposed to be 2020, they’ve run into problems and have already admitted it will probably be delayed further) there is no chance in hell that the first manned lunar mission is going to happen in 2024

  8. A paper lander, a booster needing time intensive ground checks, no budget, and a President intent on a political timeline. This has all the makings of a great way to kill someone.

  9. Why is no one talking about moon direct? All that requires is a lander with 6km/s deltav capacity, and it can go from LEO to moon surface and back. Refuel in LEO and repeat.

    It’s all well and good saying refuel at the gateway, but someone has to deliver that fuel there to start with.

    Look up Moon Direct, it’s pretty compelling and common sense. So will probably never happen. I’d put my money on a SpaceX starship getting there first, certainly before all this gateway carry on

  10. So manned space travel eh?

    That’s cool I guess. Kind of like electric cars in the 60s though.

    What scientific developments came from or would come from such MANNED trips?

    Feels like we don’t get nearly as much per dollar spent as even the worst performing scientific fields.

    ..and for it to really make sense, we need other tech.

    Like wouldn’t it make sense to first devote all this money to cold fusion research first, so that manned missions could exponentially increase the odds of accomplishing something?

    1. The developments don’t have to be scientific exactly, they can be developments in engineering. For me it would be more than worthwhile to divert some useless military funding into space technology.
      Cold fusion though… that doesn’t exist…

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