Artemis’ Next Giant Leap: Orbital Refueling

By the end of the decade, NASA’s Artemis program hopes to have placed boots back on the Moon for the first time since 1972. But not for the quick sightseeing jaunts of the Apollo era — the space agency wants to send regular missions made up of international crews down to the lunar surface, where they’ll eventually have permanent living and working facilities.

The goal is to turn the Moon into a scientific outpost, and that requires a payload delivery infrastructure far more capable than the Apollo Lunar Module (LM). NASA asked their commercial partners to design crewed lunar landers that could deliver tens of tons of to the lunar surface, with SpaceX and Blue Origin ultimately being awarded contracts to build and demonstrate their vehicles over the next several years.

Starship and Blue Moon, note scale of astronauts

At a glance, the two landers would appear to have very little in common. The SpaceX Starship is a sleek, towering rocket that looks like something from a 1950s science fiction film; while the Blue Moon lander utilizes a more conventional design that’s reminiscent of a modernized Apollo LM. The dichotomy is intentional. NASA believes there’s a built-in level of operational redundancy provided by the companies using two very different approaches to solve the same goal. Should one of the landers be delayed or found deficient in some way, the other company’s parallel work would be unaffected.

But despite their differences, both landers do utilize one common technology, and it’s a pretty big one. So big, in fact, that neither lander will be able to touch the Moon until it can be perfected. What’s worse is that, to date, it’s an almost entirely unproven technology that’s never been demonstrated at anywhere near the scale required.

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