On October 3, 2018, at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Bremen, Germany, Lockheed Martin (U.S.) unveiled its crewed lunar lander concept designed for ferrying future astronauts from the lunar orbit to the surface of the Moon. But do not worry, the company is not suddenly shifting its business to commercial spaceflight.

At the IAC, Lockheed Martin presented the design of its crewed lunar lander to pair with NASA’s Deep Space Gateway, a next-generation space station that the agency is hoping to start building as soon as the next decade. The aerospace giant takes part in NASA’s recent efforts to incorporate private companies in developing the technology for its newest space exploration projects (as well as constructing and operating spacecraft).

"NASA asked industry for innovative and new approaches to advance America's goal of returning humans to the Moon, and establishing a sustainable, enduring presence there," said Lisa Callahan, vice president and general manager of Commercial Civil Space at Lockheed Martin Space. “This is a concept that takes full advantage of both the Gateway and existing technologies to create a versatile, powerful lander that can be built quickly and affordably.”

According to Lockheed, the crewed lunar lander is a single stage, fully reusable system that incorporates flight-proven technologies and systems from NASA's Orion spacecraft. Do not forget, the aerospace giant is the prime contractor building the spacecraft, or multi-purpose crew vehicle, designed for manned deep space exploration. Meanwhile, the Lockheed lander, as Callahan explains, could be used to establish a surface base, deliver scientific or commercial cargo, and conduct exploration of the Moon.

Technicians have completed construction on the spacecraft capsule structure that will return astronauts to the Moon, and have shipped the capsule for final assembly into a full spacecraft, Lockheed Martin announced on August 28, 2018. The capsule structure, or pressure vessel, is made for NASA's Orion Exploration Mission-2 (EM-2) spacecraft.

In its initial configuration, the spacecraft would carry a crew of four astronauts and 1 ton (2,000 lbs.) of cargo payload to the lunar surface and could stay there for up to two weeks before returning to the Gateway without refueling on the surface (the lander would be refueled between missions and eventually use a propellant).

The vehicle would weigh 24 tons (48,000 lbs.) dry and tip the scales at 68 tons (136,000 lbs.) when fully fueled. For comparison, the expendable lunar lander used by NASA during the Apollo program was capable of carrying two astronauts and weighed 4.7 tons (9,400 lbs.) without propellant, Space.com writes. 

It’s all about sustainability

According to Lockheed, the unique orbit of the lunar Gateway combined with the reusability of the lander would contribute to the sustainable exploration of the Moon. “The Gateway is key to full, frequent and fast reusability of this lander," said Tim Cichan, space exploration architect at Lockheed Martin Space, who presented the lander concept at the IAC.

"Because this lander doesn't have to endure the punishment of re-entering Earth's atmosphere, it can be re-flown many times over without needing significant and costly refurbishment. That's a major advantage of the Gateway and of a modular, flexible, reusable approach to deep space exploration." In other words, investments made in technology developed for NASA’s Orion can be re-used to reduce the cost, complexity and development timeline, the company highlights.

Lockheed's lander could be up and running by the late 2020s, in keeping with NASA’s targeted timeline, Rob Chambers, the Director of human spaceflight strategy and business development at Lockheed Martin Space was quoted as saying by Space.com. In another first, it is planned that the lander would launch atop NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) mega-rocket, also in development. However, things should not stop there either.

One of the hopes for the new technology is that reusable landers, like the one Lockheed proposes, could be used for a number of ground-breaking functions, such as collecting ice from the Moon’s surface, which could then be used to replenish oxygen supplies on the space station, produce hydrogen fuel for the spacecraft, and supply astronauts with fresh water to drink, as Popular Mechanics observes.

And then there is Mars. Lockheed’s lander concept, although in its earliest stage, is a bit larger than the crewed lunar lander that NASA seems to be envisioning, specialists observe. That is because the company is hoping its lunar lander technology could be of use for future manned missions to the Red Planet. According to Chambers, Lockheed’s plans are not, however, dependent on NASA selecting the spacecraft for Gateway operations.

The European Space Agency (ESA) has commissioned Airbus for two studies for possible European involvement in the future human base in lunar orbit, the French company announced on September 20, 2018. The Gateway, previously known as the Deep Space Gateway (DSG) or Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (LOP-G), is a project involving the US, Russian, Canadian, Japanese and European space agencies (NASA, Roscosmos, CSA, JAXA and ESA).