SpaceX’s Futuristic Design Romances NASA For Another Big Moon Landing Win 

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As part of its efforts to develop a sustained American presence on the lunar surface, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is planning to secure additional lunar landing missions from Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX). SpaceX won NASA's moon landing contract for its Starship next-generation launch vehicle system last year, and at the time the space agency had only partly exercised its multi-billion dollar contract with the aerospace firm.

In an announcement made today that was followed by a media teleconference, NASA revealed that it is now on track to exercise the second part of its SpaceX contract. This allows the agency to ask the company for more lunar missions, and it is part of a broader plan to develop a sustainable plan for lunar exploration.

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NASA's award to SpaceX, made in April last year was embroiled in controversy soon after the announcement. While the space agency had initially planned to award multiple companies the chance to land astronauts on the Moon, budgetary constraints forced it to stick with the highest evaluated proposal, which belonged to SpaceX.

Despite the award, work on the Human Landing System (HLS - NASA's official term for the lander) was stalled until November last year when SpaceX's rival Blue Origin decided to sue NASA for alleged impropriety. These claims were dismissed in court following which NASA and SpaceX officially commenced working on the program.

NASA's HLS contract covers three parts which are basic design, Option A and Option B. The first saw SpaceX, Blue Origin and Dynetics clear the agency's requirements, following which the trio competed for the Option A reward. This reward saw SpaceX win NASA's favor, and as a result, the company was offered $2.9 billion for two missions of its Starship lunar lander.

SpaceX's latest render for its lunar lander revealed at the time of Option A award shows an upgraded design with solar panels which played a crucial part in its selection by NASA for the Artemis program. Image: SpaceX

The Option A award requires HLS Starship to conduct two missions. The first of these is a demonstration mission which according to NASA's latest statements made moments back, is targetted for 2024. This will be an uncrewed mission intended to certify the system for carrying humans to the lunar surface. The second will mark the return of human presence to the Moon, and NASA aims for this to take place as soon as the second quarter of 2025.

While the $2.9 billion award covers both Options A and B, the latter aims at upgrading the capabilities demonstrated by the vehicle used for the former. These are dubbed by NASA to enable a 'sustained' human lunar presence, and they seek to upgrade the first generation vehicle in several areas. Whether SpaceX's decision to spread its price and milestone payments further down the timeline at the time of the Option A award will result in a higher price tag is uncertain, but appears to be unlikely.

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According to the contract requirements defined at the time of the solicitation in 2019, the sustainability segment covers nine segments of the HLS lander's performance. These are the ability to access the lunar surface, carry more mass to and from the lunar space station, conduct longer daylight operations and extravehicular activities (EVA), have a higher reliability per mission and as a whole and feature the capability to autonomously dock with the lunar space station.

NASA's proposed concept of operations for the SpaceX Starship lunar lander according to a presentation made by Kent Chojnacki, Manager, Systems Engineering & Integration (SE&I) Office at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center.

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NASA's requirements for Option A did not require the landers to meet the sustainability criteria, but they did ask the participants to outline how they planned to meet these objectives. As part of her evaluation of SpaceX's proposal, NASA's former associate administrator for the human exploration and operations missions directorate Ms. Kathy Leuders had nothing but praise for the company. She outlined last year that SpaceX's initial design already met some of the sustainability requirements and surpassed others.

As Ms. Leuders had stated:

It is of particular interest to me that, for its initial lander design, SpaceX has proposed to meet or exceed NASA’s sustaining phase requirements, including a habitation capability to support four crewmembers without the need for additional pre-emplaced assets such as habitat structures. SpaceX’s initial capability also supports more EVAs per mission than required in the sustaining phase, along with an ability to utilize two airlocks and other logistics capabilities to enhance EVA operations while on the surface. And, as previously mentioned, SpaceX’s cabin volume and cargo capability enable a myriad of endeavors that will ensure a more sustainable human presence on the lunar surface. Moreover, I note that SpaceX’s capability contemplates reusable hardware, leverages common infrastructure and production facilities, and builds from a heritage design with commonality in subsystems and components across its different variants.

NASA's timeline for the Human Landing System (HLS) incorporating all contract elements. Image: Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships -2 (NextSTEP-2) Appendix H: Human Landing System Integrated Lander DRAFT Broad Agency Announcement NNH19ZCQ001K_APPENDIX-H Draft released in July 2019.

While the Option A requirements did not require the lunar lander to be reusable, the Option B did, and as part of its solicitation, NASA had asked that:

The HLS must maintain a minimum reliability for each follow on mission which may increase mission objectives (such as longer duration) that will require a robust hardware reliability improvement task. The HLS reusable elements are expected to support at least 5 designed mission uses over a 10 year period. The period between reuse may be up to 3 years. Reusability is not required for the 2024 mission, however by 2028, at minimum the ascent module should be reusable.

The Option B award includes an additional uncrewed demonstration mission for2025, with no details available on whether it will be followed by a crewed mission. Additionally, the space agency has not officially exercised Option B, but NASA is "planning on" doing so according to its program manager for the HLS manager Ms. Lisa Watson-Morgan.

After being unable to choose multiple landers the first time around, NASA has also announced that it will open another contract for a second lander. This will involve companies other than SpaceX, and enable it to have more options at its disposal.

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