Four decades ago, the engineers who built the Apollo program's moon lander were focused on one thing: John F. Kennedy's goal of landing humans on the moon and returning them safely to the earth.
"Exploration, and lunar bases, and expansion of the program were thought to be down the road," Bob Haslett, an engineer who worked on Apollo's Lunar Module, recalled this week. "Our question was, 'Can we do it at all?'"
Now NASA's goals for future moon missions are more complex, and chances are the machine created to achieve that goal will be more complex as well. Some of the initial steps toward building that machine could well be taken next week in New Mexico at the Lunar Lander Challenge – which is being sponsored by the same company that built the first piloted lunar lander, Northrop Grumman.
This illustration shows a crew at work in the vicinity of
The contest calls for teams to send up remote-controlled rocket ships from one launch pad, have them land on a target area 100 meters (yards) away, then bring them back safely. The challenge is supposed to help blaze a trail for the next generation of lunar landers, and NASA could award up to $2 million in prizes … or not.
"It may well be that this year we'll have the equivalent of the DARPA Grand Challenge, where none of the teams made it," Bob Davis, Northrop Grumman's director of business development for space exploration systems, told me. "But if they don't, someone will be back next year."
Someone will also be working on the next real-life lunar lander, tentatively dubbed Artemis and targeted for human missions beginning in the 2015-2020 time frame. And Northrop Grumman hopes to be that someone. This summer, the company lost out to a team led by Lockheed Martin for the right to build NASA's Orion crew exploration vehicle. That leaves the lander as one of the next big pieces of the moon mission architecture up for grabs.
Lockheed Martin already has roughed out proposals in preparation for that multibillion-dollar lunar lander competition. Northrop Grumman, meanwhile, is working on its own plans - and getting back in touch with the engineers who worked on its Lunar Module, or LM, all those years ago.
"We are hovering in the background," said Haslett, who retired from Northrop Grumman years ago and set up a small engineering company with other company veterans.
The basic rocketry of getting a spacecraft down to the moon's surface and back haven't changed all that much in 40 years, said Mel Rimer, a business partner of Haslett's who worked on the LM's guidance and navigation system. "The unfortunate thing is that the physics is the same today as it was then," he told me.
What has changed, by several orders of magnitude, is the computing power that can be put inside the rocket ship. And that could make a huge difference in the capability of LM's descendants. In fact, the biggest advantage for putting humans on the moon might be that you won't always have to put a human on the moon.
"The comfort level of unpiloted operations is much higher. … No one in that time frame had complete confidence in autonomous systems," Haslett said. "That, I think, is being overcome now."
Suppose you're flying four to six missions to the moon in the course of a year. In the Apollo era, each of those missions had to follow the same profile – with two astronauts flying down, picking up rocks for a few days, then leaving again.
In contrast, tomorrow's lunar mission profiles could be much more varied.
"If only one or two of them are crewed missions, and the others are autonomous landings, you can accomplish a heck of a lot more, even if the technological advances aren't that revolutionary," Haslett said.
Tours of duty could be dramatically longer, with autonomous landers bringing down fresh supplies. "It's not unreasonable to think a crew can work for a year in one-sixth [Earth] gravity," Haslett said.
Northrop Grumman's Davis said future lunar landers could be multipurpose haulers, analogous to a modern-day pickup truck - which can be fitted with a liner for carrying run-of-the-mill cargo, a shell for carrying equipment that needs to be under cover, or a camper for carrying people.
You could even leave the camper behind for the next truckload of visitors.
"The descent component could itself become part of the permanent human habitat," Davis said. "We didn't think about that in the Apollo era. This time, we're thinking about it much more broadly."
Other advances have been made in lightweight composite materials. That should allow for larger crew capacity (four astronauts rather than two), and Rimer said those astronauts will likely have more elbow room and creature comforts (for example, seats … which the LM's passengers did without).
And although Rimer doesn't see the new lunar lander as a jet-setting Buck Rogers-style vehicle, Haslett believes its design should be forward-thinking. "Somebody needs to step back and say, 'What's the 30-year view or the 40-year view of this mission?'" he said.
Haslett said tomorrow's moon might be like today's Antarctica – a difficult but not impossible destination for researchers, prospectors and even tourists.
So who'll give birth to that new lineage of landers? Will it be Northrop Grumman, or Lockheed Martin … or one of the upstarts competing in the Lunar Lander Challenge?
Davis acknowledged that the teams targeting the challenge (as listed on Robin Snelson's Lunar Lander Challenge blog) could someday be Northrop Grumman's competitors – or its partners. "What I think is really remarkable about these entrepreneurs is that they're not constrained by traditional practices," he told me. "In some sense, they don't know what it is that they can't do."
But such business calculations don't provide the full explanation for Northrop Grumman's sponsorship, Davis said. He's also hoping that the competition itself will inspire the next generation of aerospace engineers - some of whom just might come to work at Northrop Grumman.
"The Lunar Lander Challenge is all about doing the things that create excitement and make someone say, 'Gosh, some little company can do that? I want to do that,'" Davis said. "When you feel that energy, it renews your vigor for why we do this."