Boeing proposes manned lunar lander that bypasses Gateway


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Capitalism in space: Boeing today announced its bid to build a manned lunar lander for NASA’s Artemis program, with its lander launched to go directly to the Moon rather than stopping at the proposed Lunar Gateway lunar space station.

The company said its “Fewest Steps to the Moon” proposal, submitted for NASA’s Human Landing Services program, minimized the number of launches and other “mission critical events” needed to get astronauts to the surface of the moon. “Using the lift capability of NASA’s Space Launch System Block 1B, we have developed a ‘Fewest Steps to the Moon’ approach that minimizes mission complexity, while offering the safest and most direct path to the lunar surface,” Jim Chilton, senior vice president for space and launch at Boeing Defense, Space and Security, said in a company statement.

The two-stage launched would launch on the enhanced Block 1B version of the rocket, which uses the more powerful Exploration Upper Stage (EUS), and go into lunar orbit. It would either rendezvous with the lunar Gateway or directly with an Orion spacecraft, where astronauts would board it for a trip to the lunar surface. The lander is designed to be launched as a single unit, rather than in separate modules that would be aggregated at the Gateway. The lander also doesn’t require a separate transfer stage to maneuver from a near-rectilinear halo orbit to low lunar orbit, as some other designs have proposed.

This approach, the company said in a statement, reduces the number of mission critical events, such as launches and dockings, to as few as five. Alternative approaches, Boeing claims, require 11 or more such events. [emphasis mine]

Boeing is essentially proposing a plan that makes Gateway unnecessary, a bidding ploy that very well might work with the Trump administration, which has already reduced Gateway’s initial construction to speed up its attempt to get to the Moon by 2024.

More important, Boeing’s proposal makes it very clear how unnecessary Gateway is, and how that boondoggle actually slows down our effort to return to the Moon. This is great news, for several reasons. First it shows that Boeing, one of the old big contractors that historically has depended on government dollars, is now publicly stating that it is not in favor of Gateway. This in turn makes it more politically acceptable for politicians to take this position. Expect more public advocacy against building Gateway.

Second, it shows that Boeing is trying to sell SLS. It wants Congress to appropriate more launches, and by showing Congress a cheaper way to use it the company is hoping legislators will buy into their proposal. SLS might be an exceedingly expensive rocket, but Gateway only makes it worse. Boeing is showing the world that there is a better and cheaper way to do things.

This also suggests that Boeing is recognizing the competition coming from SpaceX and others that might kill SLS, and is now trying to make SLS more competitive. While I am not a fan of SLS, if this proposal indicates an effort by Boeing is finally to make SLS more efficient and affordable I can only celebrate. The rocket has capabilities that are unique, and if its cost can be reduced in any way that can only benefit the U.S. effort to compete in the exploration and settlement of the solar system.

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6 comments

  • Richard M

    Unfortunately, it became clear through Doug Cooke’s campaign for this architecture what the real motivation is: Boeing wasn’t getting any of the Gateway contracts. So they’re offering an architecture that basically reconstitutes Constellation (which is to say, Apollo on steroids), with Boeing getting virtually all of the funding action. The Gateway doesn’t make any sense, but then, an architecture which just repeats Apollo isn’t sustainable or affordable, either.

    Boeing *will* have allies in this fight. The problem is, (a) NASA and Congress will want to spread the money around, which an all-Boeing operation won’t do, and (b) there are now international commitments to Gateway, which gives it some protection.

    Unfortunately, the likely political choice is going to be to do both: Keep the Gateway and give Blue Origin’s group the first lander bid, and then give Boeing the second bid, along with EUS funding. Of course, all this will take far more budget than NASA gets, which means all of it will get dragged out on a long development schedule, and not kick up any regolith for years to come. The worst of both worlds.

  • Richard M: Actually, I see your scenario as hopeful, as it indicates a turf war between the big space contractors and their congressional supporters. The result might be that of “divide and conquer.” None of them will be able to garner enough support to push their ideas, thus allowing the cheaper commercial alternatives to rise to the top.

  • Patrick Underwood

    The irony of giving the HLS contract to Boeing, while giving them bonuses for the ongoing slow-motion train wreck that is SLS, is just too much. I give up.

    Lucky for us the USG wants nothing to do with SS/SH. I hope it stays that way.

  • Richard M

    Hello Robert,

    We can only hope!

  • wodun

    Boeing will be happy to participate in whatever part they can. Whether the program is successful or unsuccessful, they want to be there and will use all of their power to get a piece of it. Even better if there are multiple things for them to get a piece of. I wouldn’t look at this as a repudiation of SLS/Orion/Gateway by Boeing. It isn’t either or for them, its both and all of the above.

    Boeing is in bad shape right now. One of the few bright spots is that finance reporters aren’t covering how bad their government work is going.

  • brightdark

    If Gateway was stationed at the Earth-Moon L1 point I might support it.

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