If you’re a fan of the commercial space industry (aka. NewSpace), then the name Masten Space Systems is sure to ring a bell. For years, this California-based aerospace company has been developing delivery systems to accommodate payloads to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. This included Xoie, the lander concept that won the $1 million Northrop Grumman Lunar X-Prize in 2009, their Xombie and Xodiac reusable terrestrial landers, and the in-Flight Alumina Spray Technique (FAST) that would allow lunar landers to create their own landing pads.
But perhaps their biggest feat was the Xelene Lunar Lander (XL-1) that they developed in partnership with the NASA Lunar CATALYST program. This lander was one of several robotic systems enlisted by NASA to deliver cargo to the Moon in support of the Artemis Program. This included the Masten-1 mission, which was scheduled to land a payload Moon’s southern polar region in 2023. The company was scheduled to make a second delivery (Masten-2) by 2024, one year before the first Artemis astronauts arrived. But according to a statement issued on July 28th, the company has filed for Chapter 11 and is bankrupt!
NASA has pushed back the timetable for landing astronauts on the moon for the first time in more than a half-century from 2024 to no earlier than 2025.
Blue Origin’s unsuccessful legal challenge to a $2.9 billion lunar lander contract awarded to SpaceX was one of the factors behind the delay in the Artemis moon program, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said during a Nov. 9 teleconference.
Nelson also pointed to Congress’ previous decisions not to fund the lander program as fully as NASA wanted, plus delays forced by the COVID-19 pandemic and the fact that “the Trump administration target of a 2024 human landing was not grounded in technical feasibility.”
“After having taken a good look under the hood these past six months, it’s clear to me that the agency will need to make serious changes for the long-term success of the program,” he told reporters.
Space exploration requires all kinds of interesting solutions to complex problems. There is a branch of NASA designed to support the innovators trying to solve those problems – the Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC). They occasionally hand out grant funding to worthy projects trying to tackle some of these challenges. The results from one of those grants are now in, and they are intriguing. A team from Masten Space Systems, supported by Honeybee Robotics, Texas A&M, and the University of Central Florida, came up with a way a lunar lander could deposit its own landing pad on the way down.
The fight over who gets to take the Artemis astronauts back to the Moon continues! It all began when NASA announced that they had awarded the contract for its Human Landing System (HLS), the reusable lunar lander that would ferry the Artemis IIIastronauts to the lunar surface. This decision did not sit well with the other two finalists, Blue Origin and Dynetics, who appealed the decision because NASA was showing “favoritism.”
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) rejected these appeals, which has prompted Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos to bring out the big guns. In addition to filing a lawsuit in federal court and lobbying Congress, they have also waged a public relations war against SpaceX itself, calling their safety record and into question. In response, Elon Musk took to Twitter to address Blue Origin’s claims and set the record straight.
Blue Origin has been busy lately. They launched their founder, Jeff Bezos, into space and put a bid in on NASA’s new Lunar Lander project. While SpaceX won that contract back in April, Blue Origin has continued to fight for their right to supply the space agency with an alternative lander. And recently, their not-quite-an-astronaut chief had added another fuel to the fire by offering to take $2 billion off the price tag of a Blue Origin lander.
A number of missions are destined for the Moon before this decade is over. In addition to the Artemis Program, the European Space Agency (ESA), the China National Space Agency (CNSA), Roscosmos, and other space agencies have some ambitious plans of their own. These include sending robotic missions to characterize the local environment, scout out resources, and pave the way for permanent human outposts.
The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) also some very interesting lunar missions in mind. In addition to partnering with NASA on the Artemis Program and helping to create the Lunar Gateway, JAXA has the radical idea to send a transforming rover to the Moon. The data this rover collects will be used to inform the design of a pressurized rover that will allow for a sustained human presence on 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 Orionspacecraft 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.
It’s no exaggeration to say that NASA’s plans to return astronauts to the Moon has faced its share of challenges. From its inception, Project Artemis has set some ambitious goals, up to and including placing “the first woman and next man” on the Moon by 2024. Aside from all the technical challenges that this entails, there’s also the question of budgets. As the Apollo Era taught us, reaching the moon in a few years doesn’t come cheap!
Funding is an especially sticky issue right now because of the fact that we’re in an election year and NASA may be dealing with a new administration come Jan of 2021. In response, NASA announced a budget last week (Mon. Sept 21st) that put a price tag on returning astronauts to the Moon. According to NASA, it will cost taxpayers $28 billion between 2021 and 2025 to make sure Project Artemis’ meets its deadline of 2024.
In less than four years, NASA plans to send astronauts back to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo era (Project Artemis). But this time, NASA plans to build the infrastructure needed to ensure a “sustainable program” of lunar exploration. In short, we’re going back to the Moon and this time, we plan to stay! To help them get there, the agency has partnered with commercial aerospace companies to provide logistical support.
In addition, NASA recently named three companies to develop vehicles for the Artemis missions that will be capable of landing astronauts on the lunar surface. They include the commercial space powerhouses SpaceX and Blue Origin, as well as the Alabama-based Dynetics, all of whom are tasked with developing Human Landing Systems (HLS) that can be deployed from their respective heavy launch systems (or another commercial provider).
However, in recent years, these plans have been altered considerably to prioritize “returning to the Moon.” Formally named Project Artemis, VP Pence emphasized in March of 2019 that NASA must return to the Moon by 2024, even if it meant some shakeups were needed. In the latest news, NASA has indicated that the Lunar Gateway is no longer a priority, as part of a plan to “de-risk” the mandatory tasks associated with Artemis.