NASA Wants Heavy Cargo Landers for the Moon

The Artemis Program represents NASA’s effort to return to the Moon. One of the goals of the project is to set up long-term exploration of the Earth’s only natural satellite. This will need much bulkier equipment than what the Apollo astronauts carried though, and this equipment needs to be transported to the Moon’s surface. Blue Origin and SpaceX, contracted by NASA to provide human landing systems, have begun developing vehicles that can safely deliver this equipment from space to the Moon’s surface.

The Artemis program is far more ambitious than Apollo. The goal is not simply to land more humans on the moon, but to conduct scientific research, build a space station in lunar orbit, and lay a foundation for future expeditions to Mars. Artemis III, the first phase in which humans will land on the Moon, is currently expected to launch at a date no earlier than September 2026. NASA have contracted Blue Origin and SpaceX to build lander craft for Artemis III, and all future Artemis missions. The lander will dock with the lunar Gateway, bring the astronauts safely to the surface of the Moon, and then bring them back into orbit, where they will return to the Gateway station. But future Artemis missions will have much more demanding requirements, and involve much longer stays on the Moon. This will require a lot of heavy equipment that needs to be delivered from the Earth to the Moon.

“It’s essential that NASA has the capability to land not just astronauts, but large pieces of equipment, such as pressurized rovers, on the Moon for maximum return on science and exploration activities,” says Lisa Watson-Morgan, Human Landing System Program Manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. “Beginning this work now allows SpaceX and Blue Origin to leverage their respective human lander designs to provide cargo variants that NASA will need in the future.”

Since the vehicles that can fill this requirement do not exist yet, NASA has contracted SpaceX and Blue Origin to begin designing heavy cargo versions of their human lander craft. They must be able to cope with loads with a mass of 12 to 15 tonnes, in order to fulfill mission requirements, and must be ready to fly in time for Artemis VII. NASA does not expect a completely new design, however. They expect that the cargo landers will be modified versions of the human lander. The cargo version will need to include deployment mechanisms to unload the cargo, as well as payload interfaces. They will be uncrewed, though, which means that they will not need to include heavy and complicated life support systems.

The work is currently at an early stage. Both companies are working on preliminary designs, which will be submitted for review. Feedback from this process will inform further design work, and establish a baseline from which the final detailed designs can be created.

Artemis will allow NASA to explore the moon more completely than was ever possible with Apollo. Astronauts will spend far more time on the Moon’s surface, and learn how to live and work on another world. They will conduct research on previously unexplored regions of the Moon, and lay the critical groundwork to establishing a permanent base — a vital step on the road to building a settlement on Mars. It is a highly ambitious program, combining the efforts of space agencies around the world, private companies, and the academic sector. It requires massive investment and innovation, combining the SLS (Space Launch System) rocket, the Orion spacecraft, the human and cargo landing systems, next generation space suits, pressurized rovers, and the Gateway lunar orbital space station. If successful, Artemis will mark the beginning of humanity’s settlement of deep space.

The Artemis program is supported by Space Policy Directive 1, which changed US space policy to work on a program to return humans to the Moon. It is meant to be a US-led international mission, involving the private sector, and calls on NASA to “lead an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with commercial and international partners to enable human expansion across the Solar System and to bring back to Earth new knowledge and opportunities” The goal is to build a foundation for the eventual human exploration of Mars.

Artemis 1, which launched in November 2022, was a test flight of the SLS, which ended with the Orion spacecraft splashing down into the Pacific Ocean. Artemis 2, currently scheduled for September 2025, will fly a crewed Orion spacecraft in a Lunar flyby. Artemis 3 will land astronauts on the Moon, and is planned to launch in September 2026. Artemis 4 is hoped to launch in September 2028. It will deliver the first components of the Lunar Gateway station, and also land a crew of astronauts on the Moon. Artemis 5 and 6, scheduled for 2030 and 2031, will both dock an Orion spacecraft with the Lunar Gateway, add additional segments to the station, and land astronauts on the Moon.


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