As you may be aware, NASA is planning on a return to crewed lunar missions, partially because we left three perfectly good lunar rovers up there and partially because NASA’s Artemis program’s stated goals are to return humans to the moon by 2024 and established sustainable operations by 2028. Since we don’t understand how teleporters work, at least not yet, we’ll need to get to the moon with landers, and NASA has selected the three companies that will be building them.
The three companies selected are Blue Origin, Dynetics, and SpaceX, and each has very divergent takes on the same problem of landing humans on the moon.
In addition to a press release, NASA also made a little video showing the three companies’ design concepts:
It’s remarkable how different each approach is; NASA should be able to get some excellent data about what works best as they evaluate these three designs. Let’s take a moment to look at each lander design in a bit of detail:
Blue Origin is actually part of a group of companies that include Lockheed, Northrop Grumman, and Draper, known collectively as National Team. This team is able to leverage and repurpose a number of existing projects into the lander, such as Lockheed’s crew and ascent module, which will share a lot of engineering and design with the Orion crew module, and Lockheed’s Cygnus cargo module—already in use as an ISS resupply craft—forms the basis of the transfer element of the lander.
Draper will handle guidance, navigation, avionics, and other software systems, again leveraging related systems already developed.
The Blue Origin solution is a relatively tall, three-stage setup, and I think its greatest strength could be the amount of proven hardware it employs.
The Dynetics Human Landing System (DHLS, and sorry, space-apes) is interesting because of how close to the surface it is, especially when compared to the other lander designs, especially the SpaceX one you’ll see next.
The packaging of the DHLS the most novel part; instead of the traditional vertical stack that defines most spacecraft construction, this lander uses a horizontal approach, with a cylindrical crew cabin sandwiched between a pair of spherical tanks with engine assemblies below them. A pair of what look like solar panels rise up from the main body, like a pair of colossal robot-rabbit ears.
The DHLS is a one-stage design, meaning that the whole thing lifts off and lands as a unit, and can be refueled at the lunar gateway or dock with an Orion capsule for crew transfer.
The DHLS seems to be a great clean-sheet design, and I think how low it is will prove to be a great advantage.
The only one of these entries that we’ve seen before in any real way is SpaceX’s Starship design, an impressive, multi-use spacecraft. Starship has a very old-school sci-fi look to it, not unlike the old TinTin moon rocket or any number of simple, sleek rocket designs.
SpaceX has proven its ability to land rockets tail-first a number of times with their re-usable Falcon 9 boosters, so it’s reasonable that they’d plan a similar system for a lunar lander.
While there are some advantages to the one-stage, multi-use design, I think a big flaw here is the considerable distance a crew has to travel to get from the egress hatch to the surface.
Look at that image up there; they’re using a window-washer style external elevator system to take them the 50 feet or so to the ground. That introduces a lot of potential for accidents and makes going in and out of the lander much more time-consuming.
Still, Starship is impressive, and SpaceX has already proven their ability to land tall spacecraft like this in challenging conditions.
I’m very curious to see how this develops, and the idea of these three very different landers on the moon at once is a very exciting image.
Personally, I’m on team DHLS; it seems the best design, to me, but I’m always open to hear what you have to say in the comments, and to have the Elon stans call me a moron.