Space travel is, at the best of times, a complicated matter. And for NASA it seems as if things might be getting more complicated. Construction is underway on the Orion spacecraft and Gateway orbital station that will help put people to the moon for the first time in four decades. However with the deadline for the Artemis lunar exploration pushed forward and no contract to build the lunar lander arranged, NASA could be facing a major blow to the project.
Shoot for the moon
The Artemis lunar exploration program is an undertaking by NASA to send a crewed mission to the moon. Having been working on the project for years, NASA was given something of a push forward on March 26th 2019, when the Vice President announced a 2024 landing date for the project. This means that NASA is going to need work to begin on their lunar lander very soon. Originally, they had planned on a three-component lander, which they would oversee the construction of, and integrate. However, the new landing date has put the brakes on that notion, and now NASA is looking to contract with a company to build the entire lander.
NASA has commissioned research from 11 different companies on separate parts of the lander process. However, two companies, Blue Origin and Lockheed Martin, have submitted proposals for entire Lander vehicles. Blue Origin, owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, are confident that they can meet the 2024 deadline. Blue Origin provided a demonstration of their lunar lander, Blue Moon, at the Washington Convention Center on May 9th 2019. Having worked on it for three years prior to the announcement, they believe they can have the descent stage of the lander ready to go by 2023.
Lockheed Martin, however, have claimed that meeting the 2024 deadline will prove challenging. They plan to utilise the technology involved in Orion, the spacecraft that will carry the crew to the moon. Given the shortened time frame, Lockheed are looking at creating a two-person lander as opposed to a four-person lander. Having submitted proposals to NASA in March, Lockheed have stated that work will need to start on the lander by early 2020 if they are going to meet the 2024 deadline.
Problems leaving orbit
NASA is hoping to have funding in place before the start of the fiscal year in October, in order to get work on the construction started as soon as possible. However, there are a few roadblocks in their way. Funding may not be easy to come by, as NASA requested an additional 1.6 billion dollars in funding for 2020, but it has yet to be approved by Congress. In addition, NASA is working under legislation that prevents them from undertaking any new projects. Therefore if they cannot secure funding and a contract soon enough, it could spell major trouble for the project.
One giant leap
The accelerated deadline and change in NASA’s contracting plans could also result in a long-term alteration to the way they contract space-craft. In contracting a company to build the entire lander rather than contracting for different parts and assembling them itself, NASA will in effect be paying a company for the service of using their landing craft. This could represent a marked shift towards private industry being commissioned to carry out projects to do with space travel.
NASA are no doubt hoping to secure their extra funding and arrange a contract to build a lunar lander as soon as possible. If they cannot, they may find the project being taken out of their hands, severely delayed, or scrapped altogether.