As you may have heard, we’re finally getting ready to go back to the moon. That’s good, because we left a perfectly good electric car up there and a couple golf balls we should probably get back. Today NASA announced a second contract for a new lunar lander had been chosen, in addition to the Starship-based lander system from SpaceX. This second lander contract has been awarded to Blue Origin, who will build a version of their Blue Moon lander system to ferry crews from the planned near-lunar-orbit Gateway station to the moon and back. The Blue Moon design looks quite adaptable, as it can be used for cargo and crew, and I think it has one crucial advantage over the SpaceX Starship-based lander that I’ll explain in just a bit here.
Here’s what NASA Administrator Bill Nelson had to say about the choice:
“Today we are excited to announce Blue Origin will build a human landing system as NASA’s second provider to deliver Artemis astronauts to the lunar surface. We are in a golden age of human spaceflight, which is made possible by NASA’s commercial and international partnerships. Together, we are making an investment in the infrastructure that will pave the way to land the first astronauts on Mars.”
The $3.2-billion contract with Blue Origin is for at least two missions, an uncrewed test mission and then a crewed mission, Artemis V, planned for 2029. The Starship HLS (Human Landing System) is scheduled for an uncrewed mission and a crewed mission as well, but will do its missions first, with its first crewed mission – and, the first return of humans to the moon since December 1972 – taking place on the Artemis III mission, scheduled for December 2025.
Unlike the monolithic design of the Starship-based lunar landing system, Blue Moon takes a more modular approach; there is a lower landing/propulsion/power generation/logistics stage and atop that can be either a cargo platform or a pressurized crew module.
The propulsion system of Blue Moon is designed to run on liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, both of which could potentially be extracted from lunar ice, allowing for the production of fuel on the moon. The same components are used in the fuel cells of the lander to make electricity, much the same as was used on the Apollo Lunar Module over half a century ago.
Unlike the old Apollo landers, though, the Blue Moon and Starship landers should be able to remain docked at the Gateway station in lunar orbit, where it can be re-fueled and used again for future missions.
Both Blue Moon and Starship HLS are substantially larger than the old Apollo Lunar Module, but Starship HLS is the largest by far, and that brings up my main reason for suspecting that the Blue Moon may be a better choice: how high the door is.
This is a simple thing, but I thing could be very important. The entry/exit hatch of the Starship HLS is over four times as high off the lunar surface as the Blue Moon hatch:
In the render included with NASA’s announcement, it appears that the 32 feet from the hatch to the surface will be traversed with a pretty basic staircase setup:
If we look at renders of the Starship HLS, we see a much, much further drop from hatch to surface, and what looks a bit like one of those window-washer-type of elevator platforms, presumably motorized:
This isn’t really a great design for a lander, having to get down over 120 feet from the front door to the ground, and that’s because, really, Starship was never intended to be a lander. Starship is primarily an orbital vehicle, the upper stage of the whole launch stack atop a Super Heavy booster, and was primarily designed for that role, which is why it looks like, well, a rocket. Because that’s what it is. It says a lot about Starship’s flexibility that it can even be adapted to this use at all, but that doesn’t mean it’s an ideal setup at all.
That high drop/climb introduces all sorts of potential issues for the astronauts on the surface: what if someone gets injured and needs to get back into the pressurized lander module quickly? That trip up on that elevator setup doesn’t seem like it would be particularly rapid. And what if the elevator itself has mechanical issues? I suspect there would be some sort of manual override, but if you’re stuck 110 feet in the air (well, not-air, I guess) that hardly seems like something you’d want to deal with.
If you were designing a clean sheet lander, there is no way you’d arrive at the conclusion that you would like to put the main hatch 120 feet off the ground. Because that would be ridiculous. I even think the 32 feet of the Blue Moon is more than I’d like, but at least it’s just using a simple dumb staircase that’s unlikely to fail because, come on, it’s stairs.
I’m very excited to see humans on the moon again, and I love that this time there are bigger plans, with a lunar orbital station and multiple kinds of landers. But I know if I’m going up, I think I’d rather have the lander where that first step out the door is less of a doozy.
Blue Origin hasn’t been able to fly a single orbital rocket. Not one in over a decade of development and testing. Even their stupid little toy rocket that’s supposed to give millionaires a “space” ride is grounded. The only thing BO is good at is sucking up taxpayer money.
The challenge of getting crew 126′ to the surface is trivial compared to getting to the Moon. BO’s ladder isn’t going to get anyone on the surface of the Moon when it’s sitting on Earth waiting for the next round of funding. SpaceX delivers; sometimes late, often with explosions, but their shit works.
If they use starship for landing, why don’t they just use it for the whole mission? Why do you even need the Orion capsule if you have this.
Because Congress has mandated that SLS be a thing and remain a thing, at least for a few missions. There’s already been some rumbling in the last few weeks, though, about ditching it.
it would be much cheaper to fake the whole thing.
Cue KPS theme!
This ladder issue reminds me of my first Munar mission, where the ladder was a “minor” oversight on my part.
“One small step for a maAAAAAAAAAAN…”
Blue Origin needs to sue to get into these comps. They are not on the same level as space x or even close. I’d ride the space x with my kids 10 out of 10 times over the BO.
In 1/6 G, this really isn’t going to matter at all.
I mean, just put a sliding handle on the side of the ship that adds a little friction brake to the fall, clip your tether to it, and jump.
Do you have a simple plan to get back up to the door for your return trip?
A looped rope and pulley, like on a flag pole.
He has the CCCP mindset:
“Welp, we got the dog into space!”
How you going to get it home?
“Bring it home? Why would we do that, we got it into space!”
That same handle would have compressed the spring on the way down. Use it to go back up. Seriously, it’s 1/6G, you can practically jump up there.
I’m no mathologist, so I could be wrong.. But if it’s 1/6th of Earth’s gravity, you’d assume you could jump six times as high as on Earth right? Say these astronauts have a two foot vertical.. That’s only 12ft.. and about 100ft short of the door.
So you can’t practically jump up there. The spring assisted handle would be doing most of the work. This would be what? A big metal U shaped handle, attached to a rail on rollers? Like a barn door or something? The track will have to be on the outside of the shuttle, open to the elements, and able to endure the space flight. What would the heat, and debris do to that rail system? The bearings in the rollers?
This seems like a cool idea, but impractical.
It figures that the company which built a rocket that looks like a dildo would design a lander that looks like a butt plug.
I doubt any of the engineers had that in mind at the time.
I’ve been seriously designing serious bits of cars for serious OEMs for decades.
I’ve also been trying to squeeze a obvious yet defendable representation of a cock and balls in to a casting for most of that time.
I deleted one once to save a few grams on a race car. I still regret it.
I stand hilariously corrected .
Judging by the lack of a flared base here, I’m guessing you haven’t actually used a butt plug before.
Remember: Without a base, without a trace.
An injured astronaut might be better off with an elevator than a ladder. This is assuming broken arms or legs etc. If it was the kind of accident that rips the suit open, then the rest of the crew can just dig a trench , drop ’em in, say a few words and cover them up.
RIP in this rille, brave human.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s preferable to being stuck on the surface in the same failed-elevator-system scenario.
Dust + mechanical parts + small gravity. I’d be worried about this. The Apollo crews came back into the LM fairly filthy with dust.
Of course, my thoughts are jaded by traveling on long escalators on the Washington DC Metro. Or not traveling on them, because those things are broken ALL the time.
SpaceX should consider an escalator instead of an elevator because in the the words of Mitch Hedberg, an escalator can never break- it can only become stairs. Sorry for the convenience.
We are sorry for the fact that you can still get up there.
The sign should read.
“Escalator temporarily stairs.”
My spacesuit is dryclean only, which means it’s dirty.
“I know a lot about cars. I can look at any car’s headlights….
and tell you exactly which way it is coming.”
One small step for Blue Origin, one giant leap for SpaceX.
Another missed headline opportunity.
Speaking of headlines, have any of y’all signed up for a membership yet?
I did, and now all I can hear is James Brown & The Famous Flames singing “I got you” every time I read an article or post a comment
Seriously, vinyl level is David Tracy rusty Jeep cheap.
Who among you would prefer to stare across the vapid expanse of dwindling legitimate media sources than drop a few pence a month to keep this one alive.
The American lander market favors a higher driving position, of course.
The other, perhaps more obvious issue, (at least to me), is the SpaceX lander looks like it would be kinda easy for it to tip over and crash if they don’t absolutely stick the landing.
We’ve all watched the SpaceX landers attempt reentry and fail miserably in test flights. On the moon, no one will be there to pick up humpty dumpty if it falls over, right?
Here’s a good analysis: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mVhhwjVlNGA
Long story short, it would have to come down pretty badly to tip over, at least in part because so much of the weight is in the engines, right at the bottom.
Of the 9 Starship prototype launches so far that attempted landings, three have failed completely and one blew up after landing, due to a methane tank leak. The three failures were due mainly to problems with the first generation Raptor engines which are well in the rearview mirror (and not relevant to HLS, which will land using a ring of smaller, simpler engines around the the perimeter of the ship, near the nose to avoid kicking up dust.) None have tipped over after landing. Starship is still an experimental craft and will fly many times before they attempt a lunar mission. Meanwhile, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 has performed well over 100 consecutive successful landings over the last couple years. Once SpaceX gets in the groove, they get very good, just because they’re willing and able to launch so much more frequently than any other program.
Have we all watched that – what I’ve watched is Space X boosters nail landings on land and on sea – over and over again. All I’ve seen from Amazon is a rocket go up not very far, and come down.
Seeing all the partners involved, I also see the usual spread the sugar type of contracting. Didn’t work so well with the shuttle, and surely not for boeing. Hope I’m wrong.
The real advantage Blue Origin enjoys is that it doesn’t have Spacer X as its leader.
SpaceX operates the most heavily used, most reliable, most cost effective (and only (mostly) reusable) orbital rocket in the world. They have carried multiple crews to orbit without incident. They also operate, by far, the largest satellite constellation ever built.
Blue operates a suborbital hopper (which is currently out of commission after it exploded a few months ago) and has been verryyy slowly building an orbital rocket for about a decade now with little actual hardware to claim for it.
I don’t say that Blue can’t accomplish what they’ve set out to do, but simply based on track record, it’s hard to see how not being affiliated with SpaceX would be an advantage.
Instead it’s owned by Jeff Bezos, which isn’t much of an improvement.
Bezos doesn’t tweet bonkers conspiracy BS and defend white supremacists so there’s that going for him.
MDS in full force I see. There are many reasons to criticize musk, but you picked probably the single dumbest example out of them.
Also, you think bezos is somehow better? fackin lol
One of them looks like Tintin’s moon rocket, the other looks like some sort of 1960’s cobbled together rational thingamajig. On the basis that Tintin taught me how to speak Belgian I refute your argument.
When all else fails ramp. A sliding board going down, flip over a ramp with treads going up.
I’ve worked in the concrete business, building footings and foundations.
I approve this message.
Even simpler and lighter, they should just throw a rope out the hatch. Dülfersitz rappel down, climb the rope up.
So the astronauts can re-live that ‘Lord of the Flies’ middle school gym class moment at the absolute peak of their adult careers?
I’m not surprised at all, the elevator seemed like a totally unnecessary invitation to disaster. Extra complexity, more stuff to break, more weight, more expense. Those tracks it runs on filling up with grit and debris from the landing. I’m not saying this stuff couldn’t be engineered around, I’m just saying, on the other hand… stairs.
Near as I can tell a fall from 126 ft on the moon would be the same as a fall from about 21 ft on the earth, too much to risk even in an emergency. This shit is too important to trust to someone who picks designs based entirely on how science fiction they look.
Seriously. It’s Marvin the Martian shit. What a maroon.
Are you sure about that math? I’m not saying it’s wrong, but wondering if the acceleration rate difference changes it somehow.
Wikipedia says: “The acceleration due to gravity on the surface of the Moon is approximately 1.625 m/s2, about 16.6% that on Earth’s surface or 0.166 ɡ.”
So what would be the net landing mass of 200 Earth lbs from 120 feet on the moon’s surface? Given that we can withstand some measure of impact force, I think we could take the fall/landing/sudden deceleration.
Pretty sure… I admit I just divided by 6, but this free fall calculator gives the same results in terms of velocity (around 37 ft/s) when hitting the ground. https://www.omnicalculator.com/physics/free-fall You’d accelerate more slowly, but your mass is the same, so hitting the ground at the same speed would have the same effect.
As for jumping from 21 feet, you could certainly survive that (you could also break your neck!), but I’ve read that the greatest distance a human on Earth can fall without some kind of injury is around 12-15 feet, and that’s if you land really well. I landed on my side on asphalt from about 12 feet up once, and that was enough to break my arm. I think jumping from 21ft you’d be looking at some kind of serious ligament injury at LEAST, which is a disaster if it happens way out on the moon. I’m guessing you’d probably wreck your pressure suit too, so even if you didn’t hurt yourself too badly you might not survive the trip back to the module.
Vf^2 = V0^2 + 2ax. Plugging in V0 of 0, a of 32.2 fps * .166 (moon gravity relative to earth), and x of 120 feet gives us a final velocity of ~36 feet per second, aka 24.5 mph, 39.5 kph. So fast, and probably fast enough to cause injury or compromise a space suit, but probably not immediately fatal (from impact force alone, if you broke off your helmet seal or something, well that would kill you pretty quick).
The basic reason is that Starship wasn’t designed to be a moon lander. It was designed around two main missions: be a completely and rapidly reusable Low Earth Orbit heavy lift vehicle and a viable Martian transport. Both of these uses require an aerodynamic, traditionally rocket-shaped craft with a long engine section below the crew/cargo area. The other entrants (Blue Moon and Alpaca) store their fuel above the crew cabin and to the sides, respectively because they are pure space-only vehicles. This isn’t an option for Lunar Starship. Therefore, because the crew cabin is so far above the surface, they require an elevator to reasonably get not only astronauts, but cargo down to the surface.
There will be a backup winch or ladder, of course and probably redundant elevators. Starship’s vastly greater capability (100 tons to the lunar surface vs 20 for Blue Moon) mean that it can spare the weight. It’s not truly ideal, but because NASA had to go with Starship, it’s necesary because of what the vessel was originally designed to do.
Oh sure, I understand why Starship needs some way to get to the ground from 126 ft up. But that just goes to show how half-assed their whole bid was. SpaceX has tons of talented engineers. They could’ve designed a whole new vehicle like everyone else. And why not? Starship ain’t exactly already flying like Falcon! They could have done any number of things to get the door closer to the surface. But they didn’t bother, just slap an elevator on the side of what we’ve already got– a vehicle designed from day 1 for use with a launch tower– and call it a day. And I obviously have no idea what Elon really thinks about anything or why he does what he does, but on the other hand, as some guy commenting on the internet, I am 100% sure they went with that because the elevator “would look so fuckin’ cool.”
The elevator was necessary for such a tall vehicle, not just because it looked cool. SpaceX bid Starship because that’s the vehicle that they’re building and they’ll take any opportunity to find another possible use for it. NASA went with it because it had enormously greater capacity than any of the other entrants and, because it’s being used for other purposes, SpaceX was able to offer a much lower price. If they were trying to build a dedicated lunar lander, they would have had to offer a higher price.
In 1/6th gravity, I wouldn’t be surprised if you jump down from that 120 feet and be just fine. Not that I would suggest that in a vacuum, but a parachute doesn’t seem to be an option.
Indeed stairs do seem like the smarter way to go and in said gravity, probably kinda fun.
It’s the equivalent of dropping twenty feet on Earth, ie jumping off the roof of a house. You might do it if the house was on fire…
Of course, you can drop that far if you land in water, so clearly all they need is a swimming pool at the bottom. Of course, there’s a few trivial logistical problems with an open-air swimming pool on the moon, but I’m sure that if someone gives me a few billion I can overcome them.
Did the calcs earlier, you would hit at roughly 25 mph even in moon gravity. Plenty of potential for an injury, or worse compromising the space suit which would probably be fatal PDQ.
Thirty two feet? It’s the Moon. Jump, you big baby!
It’s just one giant leap really.
Yes, but Elon’s looks more like a giant weiner..
They prefer ‘Frank’, not ‘Wiener’. We learned that in yesterday’s class.
Oscar Mayer and Elon Musk is the same guy? Mind blown.
I’m willing to bet Elon jokingly pronounces it Spa-Sex in meetings, and the entire board room groans silently and shoots disapprovingly looks at each other.
The “s” in shoots isn’t sitting right with me. Should it be shoot?
Nah, leave it in.
Just take the “ly” out of disapprovingly and I think we are good.
A little help please? I’m stuck.
I think long-term, the Blue Moon lander will become the preferred vehicle simply because its primary purpose is to be a moon lander, whereas the Starship is being adapted to this role. It’s a big deal for Blue Origin, who developed the New Glenn rocket for this purpose then lost the original contract to SpaceX.
I’m looking forward to watching the progress of both programs.
Is this what New Glenn is being developed for? I’ll admit I wasn’t really paying attention yet when the first iteration of Blue Moon came out several years ago, but Blue’s Artemis proposal, as part of the National Team, was meant to launch on Vulcan.
“It’s not the fall that kills you; it’s the sudden stop at the end.”
― Douglas Adams
The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.
So, while your central point about height is correct, Jason, you’re mixing images of the National Team HLS proposal for the first round of contracts (which SpaceX beat because the NT design was not reusable, overpriced, and required a climb up a 30+foot ladder) and the Blue Moon lander (headline image, made by Blue Origin and a group that is largely, but not entirely the old National Team) which won the contract today. The Blue Moon took lessons from the previous loss, being cheaper, monolithic, and having the crew/cargo cabin below the fuel tanks to make ingress and egress easier.
As to the elevator on Starship, it is indeed powered and is more sophisticated than just a window washer platform. For instance, a test rig spotted a few months ago show that it will be attached to a track on the side of ship.
I just realized that you’re also mixing in images of the old Blue Moon lander as well, where you compare the cargo and crew versions. This lander was proposed by Blue several years ago, but was dropped when they formed the National Team to bid on the HLS contract. The vehicle that won today is the headline image, which has little commonality with the other two designs.
Also, to clarify, SpaceX is currently contracted for three landings: An unmanned demonstration, followed by manned landings for Artemis 3 and 4.
I’m sorry to say, but it really feels like this article was rushed through without much research. The history of the HLS program and its predecessors is convoluted and full of similar, but distinct programs and vehicles.