The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa), USA’s government-backed space agency, has announced a new project called Sustaining Lunar Development under its Artemis manned mission umbrella. Through this project, Nasa wants commercial players to come forth and pitch ideas for building a moon lander vehicle, which would work like a taxi of sorts between a lunar orbiter, and the moon’s surface itself. Crucially, the commercial players have to be someone apart from SpaceX.
Justifying the new lunar development contract, Nasa said at a conference last night that it already has existing contracts with Elon Musk’s SpaceX to help the first astronauts under its Artemis missions to land on the moon. Alongside the new contract, Nasa has also asked SpaceX to tweak the initial plan – from building a single-mission spacecraft to travel to the moon and back, to one that can be used for recurrent missions. The latter would mark at least two Artemis missions for which SpaceX would now serve Nasa, and the earliest of the two is expected in April 2025.
However, Nasa is also exploring an option where a long-term lunar orbiter is established, and would require a separate lunar landing module to take astronauts from the orbiter to the moon surface, and back again. Such modular space transport methods are well established since they add extra mobility and flexibility to space transportation. Large rockets are typically targeted at travelling to specific destinations, while smaller modules such as Nasa’s new, proposed landing unit can help chart new space destinations. Think of this as a last-mile space connectivity of sorts.
Lisa Watson-Morgan, program manager for Nasa Marshall Space Flight Centre’s Human Landing System, said during the conference, “This strategy expedites progress toward a long-term, sustaining lander capability as early as the 2026 or 2027 timeframe. We expect to have two companies safely carry astronauts in their landers to the surface of the Moon under NASA’s guidance before we ask for services, which could result in multiple experienced providers in the market.”
While Nasa’s contract is restricted to American companies only, Indian space startups have already proposed such projects under their plans. For instance, Bengaluru-based Bellatrix Aerospace has proposed a “space taxi” for satellite deployments, which will serve a similar last-mile function, but in Earth orbits only for the time being. The company has already struck a deal with fellow Indian space startup, Skyroot Aerospace, where once the latter carries a payload of satellites into orbit, Bellatrix’s ‘space taxi’ can work to deploy specific satellites in target orbits or strategic orbit points.
Such a technology can reduce the overall expenses of space missions further, since a single rocket would serve only as point to point transport, and not be required to perform complicated manoeuvres.