A 1-Stage, Fully Reusable Lunar Lander Makes the Most Sense for Returning Humans to the Moon

When astronauts return to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo Era, they will be relying on a number of mission elements to get them there and back safely. This includes the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft that will launch a crew of four and carry them to the Moon. But until recently, the question of how they will get to and from the surface remained unresolved, as there were a few options.

To determine which would be best in terms of performance and cost, researchers from Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech) in Moscow and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) reviewed several dozen proposals. In the end, they determined that a one-stage reusable lunar lander that could transport astronauts to and from the orbiting Lunar Gateway was the best option.

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A Canadian Astronaut Will be on Artemis 2, Making it the Second Nation to Send Humans Into Deep Space (but not Walk on the Moon)

NASA and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) recently announced that a Canadian astronaut will fly as part of the crew of Artemis II. This mission, scheduled for 2023, will see an Orion space capsule conduct a circumlunar flight where it flies around the Moon without landing. This will be the first of two crew opportunities that NASA will provide for Canadian astronauts on Artemis missions (as per the agreement).

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Here are NASA’s Science Priorities for the Artemis Missions

In October of 2024, NASA will send astronauts to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo Era. After establishing orbit with their Orion spacecraft, a team of two astronauts (“the first woman and the next man”) will land in the Moon’s southern polar region. Over the course of a week, these astronauts will explore and investigate one of the region’s many permanently-shadowed craters.

As the first crewed lunar mission in over fifty years, this mission and those that follow will have a robust series of science objectives. These objectives were laid out in the Artemis III Science Definition Team Report, which was released to the public earlier this month. This report is a summary of the science plan prepared at the behest of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) for the Artemis III mission.

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Lunar Dust is Still One of The Biggest Challenges Facing Moon Exploration

In the coming years, astronauts will be returning to the Moon for the first time since the closing of the Apollo Era. Beyond that, NASA and other space agencies plan to establish the necessary infrastructure to maintain a human presence there. This will include the Artemis Gateway in orbit (formerly the Lunar Gateway) and bases on the surface, like NASA’s Artemis Base Camp and the ESA’s International Moon Village.

This presents a number of challenges. The Moon is an airless body, it experiences extreme variations in temperature, and its surface is exposed to far more radiation than we experience here on Earth. On top of that, there’s the lunar dust (aka. regolith), a fine powder that sticks to everything. To address this particular problem, a team of ESA-led researchers is developing materials that will provide better protection for lunar explorers.

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NASA Announces the Discovery of Water in the Sunlit Parts of the Moon

For decades, astronomers have speculated that there may be water on the Moon. In recent years, this speculation was confirmed one orbiting satellite after another detected water ice around the Moon’s southern polar region. Within this part of the lunar surface, known as the South-Pole Aitken Basin, water ice is able to persist because of the many permanently-shadowed craters that are located there.

But until now, scientists were operating under the assumption that lunar water was only to be found in permanently shadowed craters. But thanks to NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), water has been observed on the sunlit side of the Moon for the first time. This discovery indicates that water may be distributed all across the lunar surface, and not limited to the dark corners.

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Lockheed Wins the Contract to Build Six More Orion Capsules

When NASA sends astronauts back to the Moon and to Mars, the Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) will be what takes them there. To build these next-generation spacecraft, NASA contracted aerospace manufacturer Lockheed Martin. Combined with the massive Space Launch System (SLS), the Orion spacecraft will allow for long-duration missions beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO) for the first time in over 50 years.

On Monday, Sept. 23rd, NASA and Lockheed Martin announced that they had finalized a contract for the production and operations of six missions using the Orion spacecraft, with the possibility of up to twelve being manufactured in total. This fulfills the requirements for NASA’s Project Artemis and opens the possibility for further missions to destinations like Mars and other locations in deep-space.

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How Do We Colonize the Moon?

An illustration of a Moon base that could be built using 3D printing and ISRU, In-Situ Resource Utilization. Credit: RegoLight, visualisation: Liquifer Systems Group, 2018

Welcome back to our series on Colonizing the Solar System! Today, we take a look at that closest of celestial neighbors to Earth. That’s right, we’re taking a look at the Moon!

Chances are, we’ve all heard about it more than once in our lifetimes and even have some thoughts of our own on the subject. But for space agencies around the world, futurists, and private aerospace companies, the idea of colonizing the Moon is not a question of “if”, but “when” and “how”. For some, establishing a permanent human presence on the Moon is a matter of destiny while for others, it’s a matter of survival.

Not surprisingly, plans for establishing a human settlement predate both the Moon Landing and the Space Race. In the past few decades, many of these plansa have been dusted off and updated thanks to plans for a renewed era of lunar exploration. So what would it take to establish a permanent human presence on the Moon, when could it happen, and are we up to that challenge?

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Is NASA Sacrificing Sending Astronauts to Mars in Order to Get to the Moon Sooner?

On December 11th, 2017, President Trump issued Space Policy Directive-1, a change in national space policy which tasked NASA with the creation of an innovative and sustainable program of exploration that would send astronauts back to the Moon. This was followed on March 26th, 2019, with President Trump directing NASA to land the first astronauts since the Apollo era on the lunar South Pole by 2024.

Named Project Artemis, after twin sister of Apollo and goddess of the Moon in Greek mythology, this project has expedited efforts to get NASA back to the Moon. However, with so much focus dedicated to getting back to the Moon, there are concerns that other projects being neglected – like the development of the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, a central part of creating a sustained human presence on the Moon and going on to Mars.

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The Mars Project! Von Braun’s Ideas for a Mars Mission. Collaboration with Vintage Space

Humans to Mars!

Did you know that it’s been almost 45 years since humans walked on the surface of the Moon? Of course you do. Anyone who loves space exploration obsesses about the last Apollo landings, and counts the passing years of sadness.

Sure, SpaceX, Blue Origins and the new NASA Space Launch Systems rocket offer a tantalizing future in space. But 45 years. Ouch, so much lost time.

What would happen if we could go back in time? What amazing and insane plans did NASA have to continue exploring the Solar System? What alternative future could we have now, 45 years later?

In order to answer this question, I’ve teamed up with my space historian friend, Amy Shira Teitel, who runs the Vintage Space blog and YouTube Channel. We’ve decided to look at two groups of missions that never happened.

In her part, Amy talks about the Apollo Applications Program; NASA’s original plans before the human exploration of the Moon was shut down. More Apollo missions, the beginnings of a lunar base, and even a human flyby of Venus.

In my half of the series, I look at Werner Von Braun’s insanely ambitious plans to send a human mission to Mars. Put it together with Amy’s episode and you can imagine a space exploration future with all the ambition of the Kerbal Space Program.

Keep mind here that we’re not going to constrain ourselves with the pesky laws of physics, and the reality of finances. These ideas were cool, and considered by NASA engineers, but they weren’t necessarily the best ideas, or even feasible.

So, 2 parts, tackle them in any order you like. My part begins right now.

Werner Von Braun, of course, was the architect for NASA’s human spaceflight efforts during the space race. It was under Von Braun’s guidance that NASA developed the various flight hardware for the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions including the massive Saturn V rocket, which eventually put a human crew of astronauts on the Moon and safely returned them back to Earth.

Wernher von Braun. Credit: NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center

Von Braun was originally a German rocket scientist, pivotal to the Nazi “rocket team”, which developed the ballistic V-2 rockets. These unmanned rockets could carry a 1-tonne payload 800 kilometers away. They were developed in 1942, and by 1944 they were being used in war against Allied targets.

By the end of the war, Von Braun coordinated his surrender to the Allies as well as 500 of his engineers, including their equipment and plans for future rockets. In “Operation Paperclip”, the German scientists were captured and transferred to the White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico, where they would begin working on the US rocket efforts.

Von Braun and others standing in front a V-2 rocket engine at White Sands. Credit: U.S. Army/ Ordway Collection/Space Rocket Center

Before the work really took off, though, Von Braun had a couple of years of relative downtime, and in 1947 and 1948, he wrote a science fiction novel about the human exploration of Mars.

The novel itself was never published, because it was terrible, but it also contained a detailed appendix containing all the calculations, mission parameters, hardware designs to carry out this mission to Mars.

The Mars Project

In 1952, this appendix was published in Germany as “Das Marsproject”, or “The Mars Project”. And an English version was published a few years later. Collier’s Weekly Magazine did an 8-part special on the Mars Project in 1952, captivating the world’s imagination.

Here’s the plan: In the Mars Project, Von Braun envisioned a vast armada of spaceships that would make the journey from Earth to Mars. They would send a total of 10 giant spaceships, each of which would weigh about 4,000 tonnes.

Just for comparison, a fully loaded Saturn V rocket could carry about 140 tonnes of payload into Low Earth Orbit. In other words, they’d need a LOT of rockets. Von Braun estimated that 950 three-stage rockets should be enough to get everything into orbit.

Ships being assembled in orbit. Credit: Collier’s

All the ships would be assembled in orbit, and 70 crewmembers would take to their stations for an epic journey. They’d blast their rockets and carry out a Mars Hohmann transfer, which would take them 8 months to make the journey from Earth to Mars.

The flotilla consisted of 7 orbiters, huge spheres that would travel to Mars, go into orbit and then return back to Earth. It also consisted of 3 glider landers, which would enter the Martian atmosphere and stay on Mars.

Once they reached the Red Planet, they would use powerful telescopes to scan the Martian landscape and search for safe and scientifically interesting landing spots. The first landing would happen at one of the planet’s polar caps, which Von Braun figured was the only guaranteed flat surface for a landing.

A rocket-powered glider descending towards Mars. Credit: Collier’s

At this point, it’s important to note that Von Braun assumed that the Martian atmosphere was about as thick as Earth’s. He figured you could use huge winged gliders to aerobrake into the atmosphere and land safely on the surface.

He was wrong. The atmosphere on Mars is actually only 1% as thick as Earth’s, and these gliders would never work. Newer missions, like SpaceX’s Red Dragon and Interplanetary Transport Ship will use rockets to make a powered landing.

I think if Von Braun knew this, he could have modified his plans to still make the whole thing work.

Landed at the polar cap. Credit: Collier’s

Once the first expedition landed at one of the polar caps, they’d make a 6,400 kilometer journey across the harsh Martian landscape to the first base camp location, and build a landing strip. Then two more gliders would detach from the flotilla and bring the majority of the explorers to the base camp. A skeleton crew would remain in orbit.

Once again, I think it’s important to note that Von Braun didn’t truly understand how awful the surface of Mars really is. The almost non-existent atmosphere and extreme cold would require much more sophisticated gear than he had planned for. But still, you’ve got to admire his ambition.

Preparing the gliders for rocket-powered ascent. Credit: Collier’s

With the Mars explorer team on the ground, their first task was to turn their glider-landers into rockets again. They would stand them up and get them prepped to blast off from the surface of Mars when their mission was over.

The Martian explorers would set up an inflatable habitat, and then spend the next 400 days surveying the area. Geologists would investigate the landscape, studying the composition of the rocks. Botanists would study the hardy Martian plant life, and seeing what kinds of Earth plants would grow.

Zoologists would study the local animals, and help figure out what was dangerous and what was safe to eat. Archeologists would search the region for evidence of ancient Martian civilizations, and study the vast canal network seen from Earth by astronomers. Perhaps they’d even meet the hardy Martians that built those canals, struggling to survive to this day.

Once again, in the 1940s, we thought Mars would be like the Earth, just more of a desert. There’d be plants and animals, and maybe even people adapted to the hardy environment. With our modern knowledge, this sounds quaint today. The most brutal desert on Earth is a paradise compared to the nicest place on Mars. Von Braun did the best he could with the best science of the time.

Finally, at the end of their 400 days on Mars, the astronauts would blast off from the surface of Mars, meet up with the orbiting crew, and the entire flotilla would make the return journey to Earth using the minimum-fuel Mars-Earth transfer trajectory.

The planned trajectories to and from Mars. Credit: Collier’s

Although Von Braun got a lot of things wrong about his Martian mission plan, such as the thickness of the atmosphere and habitability of Mars, he got a lot of things right.

He anticipated a mission plan that required the least amount of fuel, by assembling pieces in orbit, using the Hohmann transfer trajectory, exploring Mars for 400 days to match up Earth and Mars orbits. He developed the concept of using orbiters, detachable landing craft and ascent vehicles, used by the Apollo Moon missions.

The missions never happened, obviously, but Von Braun’s ideas served as the backbone for all future human Mars mission plans.

I’d like to give a massive thanks to the space historian David S.F. Portree. He wrote an amazing book called Humans to Mars, which details 50 years of NASA plans to send humans to the Red Planet, including a fantastic synopsis of the Mars Project.

I asked David about how Von Braun’s ideas influenced human spaceflight, he said it was his…

“… reliance on a conjunction-class long-stay mission lasting 400 days. That was gutsy – in the 1960s, NASA and contractor planners generally stuck with opposition-class short-stay missions. In recent years we’ve seen more emphasis on the conjunction-class mission mode, sometimes with a relatively short period on Mars but lots of time in orbit, other times with almost the whole mission spent on the surface.”

Can you buy Land on the Moon?

Have you ever heard that it’s possible to buy property on the Moon? Perhaps someone has told you that, thanks to certain loopholes in the legal code, it is possible to purchase your very own parcel of lunar land. And in truth, many celebrities have reportedly bought into this scheme, hoping to snatch up their share of land before private companies or nations do.

Despite the fact that there may be several companies willing to oblige you, the reality is that international treaties say that no nation owns the Moon. These treaties also establish that the Moon is there for the good of all humans, and so it’s impossible for any state to own any lunar land. But does that mean private ownership is impossible too? The short answer is yes.

The long answer is, it’s complicated. At present, there are multiple nations hoping to build outposts and settlements on the Moon in the coming decades. The ESA hopes to build a “international village” between 2020 and 2030 and NASA has plans for its own for a Moon base.

The ESA recently elaborated its plan to create a Moon base by the 2030s. Credit: Foster + Partners is part of a consortium set up by the European Space Agency to explore the possibilities of 3D printing to construct lunar habitations. Credit: ESA/Foster + Partners
The ESA recently elaborated its plan to create a Moon base by the 2030s. Credit: ESA/Foster + Partners

The Russian space agency (Roscosmos) is planning to build a lunar base by the 2020s, and the China National Space Agency (CNSA) is planning to build such a base in a similar timeframe, thanks to the success of its Chang’e program.

Because of this, a lot of attention has been focused lately on the existing legal framework for the Moon and other celestial bodies. Let’s take a look at the history of “space law”, shall we?

Outer Space Treaty:

On Jan. 27th, 1967, the United States, United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union sat down together to work out a treaty on the exploration and use of outer space. With the Soviets and Americans locked in the Space Race, there was fear on all sides that any power that managed to put resources into orbit, or get to the Moon first, might have an edge on the others – and use these resources for evil!

As such, all sides signed “The Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies” – aka. “The Outer Space Treaty”. This treaty went into effect on Oct. 10th, 1967, and became the basis of international space law. As of September 2015, it has been signed by 104 countries (while another 24 have signed the treaty but have not competed the ratification process).

Sample collection on the surface of the Moon. Apollo 16 astronaut Charles M. Duke Jr. is shown collecting samples with the Lunar Roving Vehicle in the left background. Image: NASA
Astronaut Charles M. Duke Jr. shown collecting samples on the lunar surface with the Lunar Roving Vehicle during the Apollo 16 mission. Credit: NASA

The treaty is overseen the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA). It’s a big document, with lots of articles, subsections, and legalese. But the most relevant clause is Article II of the treaty, where it states:

“Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.”

“Loophole” in the Treaty:

Despite clearly saying that Outer Space is the property of all humanity, and can only be used for the good of all, the language is specific to national ownership. As a result, there is no legal consensus on whether or not the treaty’s prohibition are also valid as far as private appropriation is concerned.

However, Article II addresses only the issue of national ownership, and contains no specific language about the rights of private individuals or bodies in owning anything in outer space. Because of this, there are some who have argued that property rights should be recognized on the basis of jurisdiction rather than territorial sovereignty.

About 20 minutes after the first step, Aldrin joined Armstrong on the surface and became the second human to set foot on the Moon. Credit: NASA
About 20 minutes after the first step, Aldrin joined Armstrong on the surface and became the second human to set foot on the Moon. Credit: NASA

Looking to Article VI though, it states that governments are responsible for the actions of any party therein. So it is clear that the spirit of the treaty is meant to apply to all entities, be they public or private. As it states:

“States Parties to the Treaty shall bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, whether such activities are carried on by governmental agencies or by non-governmental entities, and for assuring that national activities are carried out in conformity with the provisions set forth in the present Treaty. The activities of non-governmental entities in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall require authorization and continuing supervision by the appropriate State Party to the Treaty.”

In other words, any person, organization or company operating in space is answerable to their respective government. But since no specific mention is made of private ownership, there are those who claim that this represents a “loophole” in the treaty which allows them to claim and sell land on the Moon at this time. Because of this ambiguity, there have been attempts to augment the Outer Space Treaty.

The Moon Treaty:

On Dec. 18th, 1979, members of the United Nations presented an agreement which was meant to be a follow-up to the Outer Space Treaty and close its supposed loopholes. Known as the “Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies” – aka. “The Moon Treaty” or “Moon Agreement” – this treaty intended to establish a legal framework for the use of the Moon and other celestial bodies.

On the Lunar Surface – Apollo 11 astronauts trained on Earth to take individual photographs in succession in order to create a series of frames that could be assembled into panoramic images. This frame from fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s panorama of the Apollo 11 landing site is the only good picture of mission commander Neil Armstrong on the lunar surface. Credit: NASA
Buzz Aldrin’s panorama of the Apollo 11 landing site is the only good picture of mission commander Neil Armstrong on the lunar surface. Credit: NASA

Much like the Outer Space Treaty, the agreement established that the Moon should be used for the benefit of all humanity and not for the sake of any individual state. The treaty banned weapons testing, declared that any scientific research must be open and shared with the international community, and that nations and individuals and organizations could not claim anything.

In practice, the treaty failed because it has not been ratified by any state that engages in crewed space exploration or has domestic launch capability. This includes the United States, the larger members of the ESA, Russia, China, Japan and India. Though it expressly forbids both national and private ownership of land on the Moon, or the use thereof for non-scientific, non-universal purposes, the treaty effectively has no teeth.

Bottom line, there is nothing that expressly forbids companies from owning land on the Moon. However, with no way to claim that land, anyone attempting to sell land to prospective buyers is basically selling snake oil. Any documentation that claims you own land on the Moon is unenforceable, and no nation on the planet that has signed either the Outer Space Treaty or the Moon Treaty will recognize it.

Moon Map
The annotated features on the lunar nearside. You’ll notice, not one of them says “Land for Sale!” Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Peter Freiman(Cmglee). Background photograph by Gregory H. Revera.

Then again, if you were able to fly up to the Moon and build a settlement there, it would be pretty difficult for anyone to stop you. But don’t expect that to the be the last word on the issue. With multiple space agencies looking to create “international villages” and companies hoping to create a tourist industry, you could expect some serious legal battles down the road!

But of course, this is all academic. With no atmosphere to speak of, temperatures reaching incredible highs and lows – ranging from 100 °C (212 °F) to -173 °C (-279.4 °F) – its low gravity (16.5 % that of Earth), and all that harsh Moon dust, nobody outside of trained astronauts (or the clinically insane) should want to spend a significant amount of time there!

We have written many interesting articles about the Moon here at Universe Today. Here’s Can you Really Name a Star?, Make a Deal for Land on the Moon, and our series on Building a Moon Base.

Want more information about the Moon? Here’s NASA’s Lunar and Planetary Science page. And here’s NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide.

You can listen to a very interesting podcast about the formation of the Moon from Astronomy Cast, Episode 17: Where Did the Moon Come From?

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