The Lunar Economy: From Vision to Reality The United States has a rich heritage in space, and recently, NASA selected 11 companies to conduct studies and produce prototypes of human landers for its Artemis lunar exploration program. The aim will be to put American astronauts — the first woman and the next man on the Moon’s south pole by 2024 — and establish sustainable missions by 2028. We talk to some of the companies involved in this exciting initiative, and where it could lead next.
Peter McGrath, Boeing’s Director of Global Sales and Marketing for the Space Exploration business, admits that exploration will benefit humanity in a host of ways. “There is the technology development required to make such a goal achievable that is then moved through the economy in different ways. Then there is direct research in space that is used on Earth, such as medicines,” he says. “More companies are seeing potential economic benefit to space exploration, too. Add to that the inspiration of these efforts and you get an effect such as Apollo had on the leaders of today’s human spaceflight efforts. The work we do today inspires students to become engineers and do more remarkable things.”
There could be numerous benefits to humanity once these missions begin in earnest. Frank Slazer, vice president of strategy and business development for space at Aerojet Rocketdyne, believes the importance of a regular series of missions to the moon isn’t limited to the space industry — although, it would greatly strengthen the space industrial base and workforce. Slazer grew up during the Apollo program and admits it had a huge effect on him, as well as tens of thousands in his generation. He adds, “We were inspired to go into STEM careers, and even though only a small fraction of my generation went into the space industry, others went into fields such as IT, medicine, and aviation. This Apollo generation is the one that gave us affordable PCs and the internet, smartphones, and amazing advances in medicine, science, and materials technology. A regular cadence of highly visible human exploration missions will energize this new generation to pursue STEM careers and may help supercharge our economy.” The Lunar Economy: From Vision to Reality
However, there are ambitious timelines at play. There are also considerable technical challenges, as companies look to go beyond just landing on the Moon, and look to create future ecosystems for living and working in a lunar economy. Robert Curbeam, VP of business development, space systems at Northrop Grumman believes the ability to return humans to the lunar surface in five years is “very reasonable” given the right technical concept and capabilities — using best practices and standards, while effectively managing risk. “Propulsion is always a major technical challenge in spaceflight, and we see that as an area targeted for using high-heritage systems and active risk-reduction, he says. “NASA is focused on speed to land the next man and first woman on the Moon by 2024.”
He adds that development of next-generation human landing systems will provide a game-changing capability for access to the lunar surface. “The ability to land both humans and large masses on the lunar surface opens up endless possibilities for scientific exploration, and opens up markets through the industrial utilization of the Moon. When Northrop Grumman’s lunar module touched down at the Sea of Tranquillity, carrying two NASA astronauts on July 20, 1969, both the space industry and the world were changed. Suddenly things that felt impossible had been achieved and fuelled our desire to continue innovating and exploring,” he says.
Andy Crocker, director of space strategy and lunar program manager at Dynetics, believes that taking a balanced approach to risk is key. For lunar missions, we must be willing to live with appropriate levels of risk and understand that absolute minimum risk may not be appropriate. In the last 50 years, Crocker says NASA has improved both its understanding and management of the risks of human space flight, and that it has driven new technologies to lower said risks. “Without a doubt, a focus on safety and controlling risk is good. The current schedule for Artemis absolutely requires timely decisions,” he says.
He continues, “The enterprise of human exploration requires accepting risks and willingness to sacrifice. Astronauts are explorers; like explorers have for millennia, they choose sacrifice. They understand they are part of something bigger than themselves, and they accept the risks. As mission planners and system designers, we sometimes need to remind ourselves of the saying, ‘Perfect is the enemy of good enough.’ Trying to be perfect will sabotage success. Likewise, trying to eliminate every risk is a misguided — and impossible — goal. One could say, ‘Zero risk is the enemy of good enough.” The Lunar Economy: From Vision to Reality
Slazer admits that the space industry is now building on decades of experience to take the next giant leap. He points to the fact that Aerojet Rocketdyne is using innovative technologies, such as Solar Electric Propulsion, 3D printing, and other advanced manufacturing techniques to deliver reliable and affordable deep space propulsion systems. However, it will take more than just great technology to succeed. He adds, “While we have the technology and the capabilities to succeed in going to the Moon in 2024, it will require increased funding for NASA and a sustained bipartisan commitment to space exploration. One of the biggest differences between now and Apollo was that then, the Congress and the White House sustained their support over five Congressional election cycles and three Presidents – including a change in the President’s party. We need that kind of consistent support to succeed.”