NASA has approved designs for lunar landers submitted by SpaceX, Blue Origins, and Dynetics. Officially dubbed the “certification baseline reviews”, the approvals mark a significant step toward finalizing the design that will ultimately be used for the Human Landing System (HLS) and Artemis programs. The certification baseline reviews are used to establish the minimum level of expertise and capacity needed to successfully build a working lunar lander.
Modified Starship Design
SpaceX submitted a modified version of its planned Starship spacecraft that will be capable of landing and taking off from the Moon without making use of modules similar to the Apollo Lunar Lander’s landing stage and ascent stage. Most of the landing stages of the Apollo Lunar Landers used for the actual lunar landing missions are still on the lunar surface. The exception is the Apollo 13 Lunar Lander, which burned up in Earth’s atmosphere.
SpaceX appears to have taken an early lead over Blue Origins and Dynetics. It has already performed successful “hop tests” of full-scale Starship prototypes. Barring any serious delays, it could start performing orbital tests as early as 2021.
It also has an edge on making launch services more affordable through its development of reusable hardware. SpaceX has already reused the first stage rocket that it used for the first crewed launch of its Crew Dragon, for instance.
Commercial Space Program
The cost savings are likely to be attractive to decision-makers in NASA’s commercial space program, which awards grants for the private sector’s development of technology that can be used in space-based applications. This grant program is especially attractive for private industry because the companies involved are not strictly limited to selling products based on these new technologies to NASA. SpaceX can use the technology to send private customers to the Moon and Mars besides filling its current contract of sending NASA’s astronauts to the International Space Station.
Former NASA administrator Charles Bolden oversaw the start of the commercial space program and praised its track record of success:
“America’s best days in space exploration are ahead of us thanks to the grit and determination of those in government, and the private sector, who dare to dream big dreams and have the skills to turn them into reality. … The commercial space industry will be an engine of 21st century American economic growth and will help us carry out even more ambitious deep space exploration missions.”
SpaceX has received several grants for development of hardware that can be used for the Artemis program, which aims to return astronauts to the Moon by 2024. The current certification baseline review simply moves it one step closer to the possibility of providing launch services for the Artemis program.