The Blue Origin National Team has wrapped up a major milestone as it seeks to develop a Human Landing System (HLS) for America’s next footsteps on the Moon. On Monday, the industrial team—which includes Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper Labs, led by Kent, Wash.-headquartered Blue Origin—announced that it had completed its critical System Requirements Review (SRR). This is the first “gated milestone” of the team’s effort to develop a HLS to put astronauts on the lunar surface by 2024.
It reflects the successful baselining of key requirements for the mission, vehicles and ground segment, and its completion allows the design to move on to the NASA Certification Baseline Review (CBR), lower-level element SRRs and the preliminary design phase.
The National Team was formally unveiled by Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos last October. Under its terms, Blue Origin serves as prime contractor, leading program management, systems engineering, safety and mission assurance, together with mission engineering and operations, as well as developing the Descent Element for the HLS. Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin is responsible for the reusable Ascent Element and leads crewed flight operations and training, whilst Northrop Grumman is fabricating the Transfer Element to deliver the HLS into low lunar orbit and Draper is leading the descent guidance systems and provision of the flight avionics.
“National challenges call for a national response,” Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith noted last October, and, indeed, the National Team has decades of cumulative experience and expertise in America’s space program. And their heritage companies also played a key role in getting humans to the Moon during Project Apollo, more than five decades ago. One of Lockheed Martin’s heritage companies designed and built the solid-fueled Launch Escape System (LES) and pitch control motor for Apollo, whilst Draper developed the Apollo Guidance Computer and Grumman Aerospace Corp. famously created the Lunar Module (LM) which enabled America’s first landfall with humans an alien soil.
In April, NASA announced the Blue Origin National Team as one of three industrial teams, alongside SpaceX and Dynetics, to design and develop HLS concepts for Artemis missions. The initial ten-month study contracts will run through next spring and were awarded under the language of Appendix H of the public-private Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP)-2. And just last month, a full-scale engineering mockup of the National Team’s HLS—standing 40 feet (12 meters) tall and comprising its integrated Ascent and Descent Elements—was delivered to NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, for testing by engineers and astronauts.
With yesterday’s announcement of the SRR conclusion, the National Team has closed withi NASA on 37 design and construction standards. The team reportedly had an aggregate total of 62 standards across the partners and this aided “the rapid progress” expected by NASA. In addition, hundreds of health and human performance standards and requirements were agreed upon and declared closed. The SRR included senior leaders from each National Team member, together with independent experts and NASA representatives and was chaired by former NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot, who now serves as vice president of strategy and business development at Lockheed Martin.
“Completion of this review allows the National Team to move forward in its design, much of which is evolving directly from existing systems such as Orion, and that maturity was exhibited in the review,” said Mr. Lightfoot. “The National Team has been working together seamlessly in its journey to return Americans to the Moon and the magnitude of the mission is on our minds daily.” Added Brent Sherwood, vice president of advanced development programs at Blue Origin: “Opening the Moon for exploration and business is one step closer after completion of the SRR. Achieving major milestones is the surest way to measure progress toward our first landing.”
Critical input was also provided by the Blue Moon Science Advisory Board, which included among its members Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, one of the last humans to set foot on the lunar surface, way back in December 1972. “A complex undertaking like human lunar landings requires paying attention to thousands of details and thinking through every likely contingency,” said Dr. Schmitt, a former U.S. Senator for New Mexico. “I was very impressed at the depth of engineering and operational sophistication shown in the System Requirements Review. The National Team is working to directly apply the lessons from the Apollo experience to make America’s next crewed lunar landing successful and the precursor to sustained human activity on the Moon.”
The National Team’s concept consists of a three-stage Integrated Lander Vehicle (ILV), which includes Lockheed Martin’s reusable Ascent Element, Northrop Grumman’s Transfer Element and Blue Origin’s Descent Element, with the critical Guidance, Navigation and Control (GNC), avionics and software provided by Draper.
The Ascent Element affords a pressurized volume for the astronauts and incorporates similar avionics, software, life-sustaining hardware, crew interfaces and mission operations as NASA’s Orion spacecraft. Northrop Grumman has tapped into the heritage of its Cygnus cargo ship for the Transfer Element, which will guide the crew from low lunar orbit to the surface. And Blue Origin’s Descent Element will utilize its BE-7 oxygen/hydrogen dual-expander engine, capable of 10,000 pounds (4,500 kg) of thrust and possessing a “deep-throttle” range with significant controllability benefits as the National Team seeks to soft-land this enormous craft on alien soil.
Several NASA efforts in recent decades to return astronauts to the Moon have met with frustration, due to excessive cost, unrealistic schedules and a lack of requisite political support. Under President George H.W. Bush’s 1989-1993 administration, the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI) sought to establish a permanent human presence on the lunar surface and a longer-term objective of a crewed voyage to Mars. However, its immense cost earned the ire of lawmakers, one of whom called it “one giant leap for starry-eyed political rhetoric and not even a small step for fiscal responsibility”.
The SEI breathed its last with the Clinton administration’s focus on a faster, better, cheaper way of doing business, but in 2004 during President George W. Bush’s tenure the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) was born. It too envisaged a permanent return to the Moon and yielded plans to develop a series of powerful rockets and the Orion spacecraft.
President Barack Obama’s administration kept much of the Orion architecture and kickstarted the development of the Space Launch System (SLS) super-heavylift booster, but shifted NASA’s focus away from the Moon and onto other destinations, including an asteroid and eventually Mars. More recently, in December 2017, President Donald Trump signed Space Policy Directive-1, authorizing NASA to proceed with efforts to again land U.S. astronauts on the Moon, originally by 2028 and last year being advanced to 2024.
As part of this gargantuan campaign, in December 2018 NASA unveiled plans to work with U.S. companies “to design and develop new reusable systems for astronauts to land on the lunar surface”. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine stressed that such plans would require the fostering of relationships with not only commercial entities and U.S. industry, but also international partners, in order to return to the Moon in a sustainable fashion.
Having issued a formal request for proposals for HLS systems, NASA announced last May the selection of 11 companies—Aerojet Rocketdyne, Blue Origin, Boeing, Dynetics, Lockheed Martin, Masten Space Systems, Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems (NGIS), OrbitBeyond, Sierra Nevada Corp., SpaceX and Space Systems/Loral (SS/L)—to conduct studies and produce prototype human landers for the newly-named Artemis lunar exploration program, with a plan to land the first crew at the Moon’s south pole by 2024 and establish sustainable missions to our nearest celestial neighbor by 2028.
The contracts were awarded through the NextSTEP-2 Appendix H and each company was given six months and a total award of $45.5 million to develop prototypes. As NextSTEP is a public/private partnership program, the companies were required to contribute at least 20 percent of the total project cost, in order to reduce taxpayer costs and encourage early private investment in the lunar economy.
Last September, NASA opened a formal call to industry for proposals for a new HLS system. “The first company to complete its lander will carry astronauts to the surface in 2024,” the agency noted, “and the second company will land in 2025.” This exceptionally short timeframe was made possible in part through the removal of “potential barriers to speed”, including less formalized means of assessing critical contractor data and minimal administrative overheads.
Finally, in April 2020 NASA selected SpaceX, Dynetics and the Blue Origin National Team as winners of the combined $967 million, ten-month contract. It was noted at the time that the first three months would be spent understanding the three discrete designs. “NASA will later select firms for development and maturation of sustainable lander systems, followed by sustainable demonstration missions,” the agency noted in its news release. “NASA intends to procure transportation to the lunar surface as commercial space transportation services after these demonstrations are complete.”