For the first time since Apollo 17 landed on the surface of our nearest celestial neighbor, the human race has turned its eyes toward the Moon. NASA is planning to get humans back on the lunar surface by 2024 with the goal of creating a permanent human presence on our satellite by 2028. NASA has been scrambling to try and meet these deadlines. A new offer from Boeing might make it a little easier to put astronauts back on the moon by 2024. What is Boeing offering, and what does it mean for NASA’s Artemis mission?
In October of 2019, NASA put out a call to engineers and aerospace experts to come up with a moon lander that NASA can use to get astronauts to the moon’s surface in the next five years. The deadline for these applications was November 1st, 2019. On November 5th, Boeing announced that they had submitted a proposal to NASA, titled “Fewest Steps to the Moon.”
This lander is designed to minimize mission complexity, launching on top of NASA’s SLS — Space Launch System — which will also carry the Orion crew capsule. Instead of relying on multiple different segments, the ascent and descent modules of this lander will be incorporated into a single rocket, simplifying the act of moving to and from the surface of the moon. The lander will also be capable of docking with the Gateway station that will eventually be in a southern polar orbit around the satellite.
The Boeing lander needs to be capable of surviving all of the harsh conditions of outer space, from dramatic temperature shifts and gravitational forces to radiation, pressure, and impact damage.
Boeing isn’t the only company competing to be one of the two companies that NASA selects for lunar lander development. Jeff Bezos’ space company Blue Origin is working with three other aerospace companies — Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper Laboratory — to try and create a lander faster and cheaper than any of the other companies submitting proposals. These partnerships could put Blue Origin on equal footing with the other aerospace companies.
While it’s not a lander, SpaceX’s new craft — dubbed Starship — has been marketed as a possible tool to help NASA meet it’s 2024 goal. Elon Musk’s plan for Starship is to use it to land on Mars, a goal he hopes to reach by 2022.
What does Boeing’s offer mean for the future of the Artemis missions? It could mean a couple of things, depending on which companies NASA chooses to build their landers. Ultimately, they’ll choose two manufacturers — one to land in 2024 and the second to land in 2025.
There’s also the problem of the SLS. The current Block 1B incarnation of the Space Launch System won’t be ready in time for the 2020 deadline. As things stand now, the Block 1B SLS won’t be ready until the Artemis 4 mission, scheduled for 2025. The “Fewest Steps to the Moon” lander will hopefully take some of the pressure off of NASA, allowing them to focus on getting the SLS ready so they can meet their 2024 deadline.
NASA hasn’t decided which proposals it’s going to accept for its lunar landers, so it’s a little early to tell what Boeings offer will mean for the future of the Artemis missions. 2024 is fast approaching, and NASA doesn’t have a lot of time left to meet those deadlines. Still, with companies like Boeing and even Blue Origin throwing their weight behind the Artemis missions, we can’t help but think that NASA has got things covered.