Space companies get tight deadline from NASA for lunar lander designs

In the interest of speed, NASA has scrapped plans to make the next-generation lunar lander refuelable, so that private spaceflight companies can make a tight deadline to submit design proposals.

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The U.S. space agency, which is operating under a strict timeline of reestablishing a human presence on the moon by 2024, is also cutting red tape by eliminating reporting requirements and making its engineers available to private spaceflight companies to make sure a suitable lander is built in time.

The refueling capability would have allowed astronauts to explore greater areas of the moon in a single mission. But spaceflight companies had concerns about refueling requirements, so NASA agreed to remove it to increase flexibility and address the more fundamental attribute of sustainability, which is long-term affordability, according to NASA.

“They were absolutely right,” Lisa Watson-Morgan, NASA's Human Landing System program manager, said in a prepared statement. “We are operating on a timeline that requires us to be flexible to encourage innovation and alternate approaches.”

Admittedly, the agency said that developing lunar flight technology for human flight needs takes at least eight years to develop, but the agency only has five years to build a successful vehicle, which is why past requirements are being cut, according to NASA.

NASA has been working in haste to reestablish a human, and American, presence on the moon’s surface to meet deadlines set by the program the Trump Administration. Vice President Pence has warned the agency that if it can’t meet the timeline, the administration will find a company that can.

The program has been given the name Artemis, in honor of the Greek goddess of the moon. She was the mythical twin of Apollo, the Greek sun god, which was also the name of NASA’s first human lunar exploration program. Artemis has the goal of putting the first woman on the moon, testing technology that will one day send humans to Mars and establishing a permanent human presence on the moon by 2028.

Space exploration and development companies have just a few weeks to get proposals to NASA for a lunar lander that will take a pair of astronauts from the moon’s orbit to its surface. Proposals are due Nov. 1.

To maximize our chances of successfully returning to the Moon by 2024, we also are making NASA’s engineering workforce available to contractors and asking proposers to submit a collaboration plan.

- Nantel Suzuki, the Human Landing System program executive at NASA Headquarters in Washington

The U.S. space agency announced its final call for proposals earlier this week. The first company to build a lander for the Artemis Program will get the contract for the planned 2024 return to the moon. The company to finish second will get the contract for a 2025 mission to the moon’s surface.

The tight deadline should not be a problem because companies have been preparing for, reviewing and commenting on several drafts of NASA’s broad agency announcement since July, according to NASA.

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“In order to best accelerate our return to the moon and prepare for Mars, we collaborated with industry on ideas to streamline the procurement process,” Marshall Smith, director of the Human Lunar Exploration Program, said in a prepared statement.