Last week, when NASA announced that they were picking Blue Origin’s National Team to develop a sustainable human lander for the Artemis V mission, what surprised me wasn’t the selection, but the fact that I’ve come around to really liking the decision.
While it’s still recent enough to be relevant, I wanted to share some thoughts on Blue Origin’s updated human lander architecture, why I think this was the right selection in spite of my feelings about their original concept, thoughts on the execution challenges they’ll face, and some of the interesting future possibilities having two fully-reusable lander architectures may open up for NASA. But first, you may be wondering why I was so surprised that I would end up liking Blue Origin’s lander architecture.
Why I Wasn’t A Fan of Blue Moon 1.01
I hope I don’t offend any of my friends who work or worked at Blue Origin by saying this, but if you had to summarize my initial reaction to the National Team’s original HLS lander concept, I would’ve used the word cynical.
It felt cynical, because rather than trying to come up with the best solution for affordably and reliably bring people to/from the lunar surface, they seemed instead to be regurgitating exactly what they thought NASA wanted to see. NASA had a reference mission concept that was a complex, fully expendable system with three stages — an in-space tug, a descent element, and a separate ascent element, so that’s what they had. Blue Origin was a relatively unproven space contractor, so they added not one, but two aerospace primes to their team. Which also happened to maximize the number of congressional districts their project would have work performed in2. It almost felt like they weren’t even trying to win, so much as guarantee that they’d be one of the two solutions picked3. While in theory at least some of the elements in Blue Moon 1.0 could be refueled and reused, some components like the massive lander descent stage had no easy path to future reuse.
In contrast, the Dynetics ALPACA design was a creative approach that seemed to be genuinely trying to provide NASA with a good way of getting people and cargo to and from the lunar surface. By the end of the base period, they had shifted to a single-stage lunar lander concept that leveraged in-space refueling, and had a clear pathway to full reuse. The low-slung central crew/cargo attachment point allowed easily delivering crew to/from the lunar surface as well as delivering large cargo modules, without needing multi-story ladders or elevators. The low CG meant that it could likely land on rough terrain with a lower odds of tipping than a design like Starship HLS. It did have the teensy problem that at the time proposals had to be submitted, the design’s mass budget didn’t close yet4, but they did eventually close the design, just not in time for consideration in the Option A evaluation.
Anyhow, suffice it to say, that going into last week’s HLS Sustainable Lander Development announcement, I was really rooting for Dynetics to win, and didn’t have a very high opinion of Blue Origin’s lander concept. So, when Administrator Nelson announced the National Team had been selected, my first reaction was pretty strong disappointment.
I’m glad I was too busy taking notes from work to tweet my immediate hot take, because by the end of the call, my opinion had shifted pretty dramatically.
Why Blue Moon 2.05 is a Dramatic Improvement Over v1.0
It took the press conference a while to show any details about the new design, but when they unveiled the Blue Moon 2.0 lander, I almost did a double take. The design was superficially similar to the original design, but you pretty quickly noticed some pretty significant differences. Was I seriously seeing a bottom-loader single stage design?
I never got around to blogging about what I call bottom-loader SSTO landers, but it’s an idea I first learned about almost 20 years ago with t/Space’s CXV Stage 2 concept from their Concept Exploration & Refinement study final report6. It’s one of my three favorite Unorthodox Reusable Lunar Lander Concepts that I’ll hopefully get more chance to blog about in the future. Needless to say, when I saw that, I perked up and started paying real attention.
If I had to summarize the highlights we could glean of the proposed Blue Moon 2.0 lander architecture, I’d point out three key features:
- Bottom-Loader SSTO Lander: Crew or cargo pod on the bottom, propellant tanks on top. Enables easy surface access without cranes or ladders. Keeps the CG low for reduced tipping risks. Keeps the load paths for the rocket higher efficiency. Provides the best thermal isolation between the warm parts7 and the parts that want to be kept really, really cold8. This is the part that Blue Origin would be developing
- Reusable Cis-Lunar Refueling Tug: While they never showed any pictures of the tug, this element would bring LOX and LH2 propellant from LEO to NRHO to refuel the lander, and return to be refueled again for reuse. This is the part that Lockheed Martin would be developing.
- Reusable From the Start and ISRU Compatible: By going to a single-stage architecture, there’s a clear and easy path forward to refueling — initially in NRHO using tugs coming from LEO, but eventually also on the lunar surface9. Also, while LH2 is harder to handle than Methane, LOX/LH2 can be derived readily from lunar water ice sources10, enabling a switch over from terrestrial to lunar sourcing once ISRU is proven out/debugged/scaled up.
In short, Blue Origin responded to their Option A loss in 2021 by significantly improving their offering to NASA, offering a solution that was innovative and actually worth funding.
Why I think Blue Moon 2.0 Was the Right Call
I’m still a fan of Dynetics’ ALPACA and LLAMA concepts, and I hope they find some way to see the light of day. But given what we know now, I think the Blue Moon 2.0 concept was the right call for NASA, and not a politically-motivated decision, or one that only won because a space billionaire bought his way to success.
First, and most importantly, I think Blue Moon 2.0 helped close the innovation gap between the National Team and Dynetics. Blue Moon 2.0 captures many of the benefits that ALPACA brought to the table, including: lower CG for better landing on uneven terrain, crew/cargo located close to the ground for easy ingress/egress and loading/unloading, ability to deliver significant cargo mass to the surface, and a single-stage design with a clear path to full-reusability. In some ways it was better than ALPACA, by providing a cleaner load path and easier thermal isolation of cryogenic tanks from heat sources, a propellant combo that had an easier path to 100% sourcing from lunar ISRU, and a more developed fully-reusable cislunar tanker concept11. There were some relative drawbacks like the challenges of LH2 storage, and the potentially smaller available cargo volume12, but overall they did a good job of narrowing or closing the gap with Dynetics’ solution.
Second, there seemed to be far less zip-code engineering this time around13. There are multiple team members still, but each of them makes logical sense, not just as a way to get more congressional support.
Third, while there’s very real execution risk for Blue, since they haven’t flown anything anywhere near this complex, Dynetics carries similar risk, so it’s not really a discriminator.
Fourth, while Bezos’s willingness to subsidize the price to NASA probably made a difference, it was far from the only consideration, and in my opinion was probably more of icing on the cake. In addition to closing the innovation gap with Dynetics, it sounds like Blue did a better job of convincing NASA that they had a design that unambiguously closed technically. If Dynetics had still had the clearly superior concept, and if they had done a better job of making it unambiguous that they had a design that closed for all of NASA’s needs, I think they would’ve had a decent chance of winning, even with being more expensive to NASA.
In the end, for all of these reasons, I think NASA made the right call. That said, while I doubt it will happen, I hope Dynetics finds some way to get their concept fielded14.
But Can Blue Deliver?
This is where I have the strongest reservations. While Blue has now laid out an innovative and exciting architecture that’s worthy of being funded, a concept is only as good as the organization tasked with executing it. And frankly, people have reasons to have reservations about Blue Origin’s ability to execute on a project this complex. Whether you look at how late the BE-4 engines were in development, how long it took New Shepard to transition from flight test into operations, or how long New Glenn has been taking to make visible progress, there’s definitely room to worry that Blue sometimes take the Graditim part of its slogan more seriously than the Ferociter part. One thing Blue Origin has made me realize is that while I’ve had too much experience with having too little money, that there are real risks in having too much money, that has too few requirements for demonstrated traction tied to it.
It’s an open question if Blue can change its company culture and processes quickly enough to be able to deliver on an ambitious project like this on a tight schedule. I hope they can succeed at that evolution though, because if both the National Team and SpaceX are successful, it could lead to a very exciting new world.
What If They Are Successful?
If both SpaceX and the Blue Origin National Team are successful, we enter a really interesting world. As Eric Berger pointed out in this Ars Technica article today that I was quoted in, both architectures are now based solidly on the use of reusable launch, in-space cryogenic storage and transfer, and in-space reuse. As I pointed out in the intro to my unfinished series on Unorthodox Reusable Lunar Lander Concepts, a fully-reusable lander architecture brings a lot of advantages, beyond the obvious ones of cost savings:
- Lower Marginal Costs: While you’ll still have some fixed costs associated with the lander infrastructure, the marginal cost of such an architecture drops dramatically, since you’re not having to build new lander or in-space tug hardware for every mission.
- Throttleability: Once you have a stable of multiple reusable landers, where there aren’t any major expendable components, it becomes a lot easier to throttle up or down mission tempos based on budget availability. If you have a year or two that you need more money to fund say Mars system development, you can throttle down to a lower ops tempo without risking losing the capability, unlike what happened during Apollo.
- Easier International Involvement: While Starship and New Glenn should theoretically be cheaper than any other launch source, if NASA is paying for those launches, it’s still a cost. But with a distributed lift/tanker architecture, it becomes more feasible to allow international partners to contribute propellant or crew or cargo launches to LEO as their part of the mission. Even if their rockets are more expensive, if NASA isn’t having to pay for those launches, it lowers the cost to NASA.
In addition to those benefits, a fully-reusable Cislunar tug, like what LM is proposing as their part in the Blue Moon 2.0 architecture, opens up some very interesting possibilities. Once you have a reliable way of getting from LEO to NRHO and back reusably with propellant, it’s a relatively straightforward upgrade to add the ability to ferry crew and/or cargo instead of or in addition to propellant. And since Blue will have already developed a crew cabin that’s safe for up to 30 days on the lunar surface, using a derivative of that as a crew pod on the reusable Cislunar Tug isn’t a crazy option. We don’t have hardly any details on LM’s concept, so there’s a chance they might have something in mind that wouldn’t be able to do the LEO-NRHO-LEO loop with crew or cargo, but most of the most likely options should be fairly straightforward to do that.
Once you have the ability to move crew, cargo, and propellants around from LEO to NRHO with a fully reusable system, do you really need SLS and Orion anymore? The vast majority of the budget being attributed to Artemis was the development and operation of SLS and Orion, but they’re only really capable of one mission per year. If you replaced them with distributed lift and reusable Cislunar tugs for crew/cargo out to NRHO, you could probably enable upping the lunar mission tempo dramatically, while freeing up money for developing lunar surface habitation and ISRU payloads. It’s still a longshot politically, but if SpaceX and the National Team are successful, we could be living in very interesting times.
Latest posts by Jonathan Goff (see all)
- NASA’s Selection of the Blue Moon Lander for Artemis V - May 25, 2023
- Fill ‘er Up: New AIAA Aerospace America Article on Propellant Depots - September 2, 2022
- Independent Perspectives on Cislunar Depotization - August 26, 2022
- My nickname for the National Team’s original Human Landing System concept from 2020.
- A practice sometimes called Zip-Code Engineering
- At the time, most of NASA’s comments had made it sound like they were going to downselect from three providers to two. Almost nobody I had spoken with in NASA or industry had expected that they would be willing to go with just one HLS provider.
- The Option A proposals were due around half-way through the Base Period, shortly after Dynetics had shifted from their drop-tank configuration to their single-stage configuration.
- Also my nickname, not theirs
- For a trip down memory lane, check out theirs and the other studies at: https://www.nasa.gov/missions/solarsystem/vision_concepts.html
- Where people, electronics, engines, and cargo are.
- The cryogenic propellant tanks
- As a big fan of refueling early, and refueling often, I’d also note that topping up in LLO on the way to/from NRHO could theoretically provide a pretty big performance boost
- I know some people will point out that the LCROSS data suggests that there is some CO2 and hydrocarbon ice in polar deposits, but I’m still pretty skeptical that there will be as much of it available as there will be of regular water ice. I know at least some of the data that people tend to quote was based on the original uncorrected data, and IIRC the corrected data suggested that such carbon-bearing ices were far less common relative to water than the original uncorrected data suggested.
- My one real disappointment was that they didn’t show more about this cislunar tug. From the discussion, it’s clear that this was an explicit and significant part of their proposed concept, but it’s really unclear exactly what this looks like, how it’s being reused, etc.
- They didn’t get into deep detail on exactly how the cargo would be stored. From the picture it looks like the engines might be under the crew pod, so it’s not clear if the crew pod is removable or if they have to have a seperate cargo variant. And for the separate cargo variant, it’s unclear exactly where the cargo needs to fit in. The volume of the crew pod looks like it’s on the order of 70-80m^3, which would be hard to usefully fit 20-30mT of cargo into.
- To some extent, I think Dynetics also reduced the amount of zip code engineering in their concept as well.
- Either by doing a subscale suborbital surface hopper transport system, or by partnering with a serious foreign partner that wants to be in the lander game, or some other way.