An artist’s rendition of Dynetics’ HLS lander on the Moon’s surface.
The race to return U.S. astronauts to the Moon has a dark horse seeking an upset.
A few months ago NASA awarded three teams with contracts to develop competing options for the agency to use to deliver people to the lunar surface as early as 2024. Known as the Human Landing Systems (HLS) program, two of the three teams that NASA picked are led by easily recognizable companies: Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin.
But the third team, Dynetics, knows what it’s up against. While Dynetics has been around for nearly half a century and has done a wide array of work for the Pentagon and NASA, the company has its head down to develop its HLS lander with an appealing combination of innovation, cost effectiveness and flexibility.
“We recognized that if we came out with a concept that was like what others presented, given that we’re not as well known and not as well established, it would be hard to hard for us to compete — but we also had to come up with something that was innovative,” Dynetics HLS deputy program manager Andy Crocker told CNBC. “Not all of NASA knows us as well as they know SpaceX or even the members of the Blue Origin team.”
The Huntsville, Alabama-based company was acquired by defense contractor Ledios early this year in a $1.7 billion cash deal, just a few months before NASA announced the three teams for HLS. While a wholly-owned subsidiary of Leidos, the contractor kept Dynetics’ leadership intact as it seeks to grow the company’s defense and space technologies.
Here’s what the Dynetics team is putting together, with potentially billions in NASA funding on the line.
The Dynetics HLS spacecraft begins its trip to the Moon in this artist’s rendering.
The first mission would see the Dynetics spacecraft carry two NASA astronauts on the final leg of their journey to the Moon’s surface. The company’s spacecraft would meet the astronauts in lunar orbit, connecting with either the Orion capsule the crew launched in or NASA’s proposed orbiting Gateway station.
“The initial mission plans for six days on the surface, but future missions will likely go well beyond that,” Crocker said, adding that he expects later NASA missions will be “as long as 42 Earth days.”
The company’s spacecraft is formally known as the “Autonomous Logistics Platform for All-Moon Cargo Access,” or more simply: ALPACA. it has room to “ferry” up to four astronauts at a time down to the surface, Crocker said, once there’s a habitat established for the other two astronauts. The spacecraft has eight rocket engines to descend and ascend from the surface, with four on each side of ALPACA. The company plans to develop those engines in-house.
“We’ve chosen eight because it allows us to simplify the engine design somewhat and also gives us the ability to abort in every case all the way down to when we land on the surface,” Crocker said.
Bringing enough fuel along is key so Dynetics designed a set of modular propellant spacecraft to connect with ALPACA in lunar orbit. The company would likely use United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket to get its spacecraft to orbit, so a single Dynetics crewed mission would require three Vulcan launches: One for the ALPACA and two for each of the propellant spacecraft. Currently Dynetics plans to space each of those launches out by about two weeks, Crocker said, “so it’s about a month for all three launches.”
Because ALPACA won’t have people on board until after it reaches the Moon, Dynetics will send the spacecraft “on a slow trajectory” to save fuel. That indirect route will mean taking “up to three months to get from the Earth to the Moon,” he added.
“It’s an innovative trajectory that that doesn’t go directly but minimizes the propellant we use and therefore maximizes how much propellant we have left for the actual lunar mission,” Crocker said. “From the time the first spacecraft launches to the completion of the crewed mission it could be as much as 10 or 12 months, depending on how long the crew waits to launch after we do.”
But the astronauts part would be much shorter. They would only spend about two weeks away from Earth for the first mission, since they fly separately from Dynetics’ spacecraft.
SpaceX and Blue Origin also have separate proposals for how to land NASA astronauts on the Moon. While SpaceX plans to build a lunar-specialized version of the Starship rocket its developing, Blue Origin is building a more traditional lander design. Bezos’ company has also brought together several aerospace heavyweights to help build its lander, partnering with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper.
HLS is modeled after the success NASA had with its Commercial Crew program, which pit SpaceX against Boeing in a race to build new capsules to send astronauts to the International Space Station. The agency estimates that having the companies compete under Commercial Crew saved NASA tens of billions of dollars.
Each company’s distinct approach to HLS means that there is also a wide range in how much the companies expect it will cost to develop each lunar lander system. For the first phase of development, which are essentially 10 month study contracts through February, NASA awarded SpaceX with $135 million, the Dynetics team with $253 million and the Blue Origin team with $579 million. How NASA chooses to proceed with development after this phase will be dependent upon a number of factors, including how much funding Congress gives the program in the years ahead.
Notably, NASA gave Dynetics the highest marks among the three winning teams. In the agency’s explanation for why it chose each company, Dynetics was the only team to get “very good” ratings in both technical and management aspects of its proposal.
“We’re actually really excited, not just for for our place in the HLS program, but excited for NASA and for the country that there’s such a diversity among the options,” Crocker said.
Early stages of development
Dynetics put together its own team of partners and subcontractors as part of its bid, with a wide range from space industry specialists like ULA, Maxar and Astrobotic to contractors like L3Harris and Sierra Nevada Corporation.
“We really looked first to fill in the gaps that we as a prime contractor had in certain specialty areas,” Crocker said.
He says Dynetics’ development process has already begun in earnest, “because the schedule is is so aggressive with a 2024 human landing date.” Most recently his team has completed a “system requirements review” and a “conceptual design review.” While neither of those were required by NASA, the Dynetics team undertook those reviews itself due to the complexity of building a spacecraft capable of carrying humans. Crocker said that his team has now begun the “certification baseline review,” which is “to establish the foundation or the basis for our design activities going forward.”
“It gets us on the same page with NASA,” Crocker said.
Sustainability is one of the key tenets of NASA’s return to the Moon, which Dynetics is factoring in to its lunar lander design.
“It needs to be reusable and affordable, so our intent is that [ALPACA] will be reusable, basically from the start,” Crocker said.
After the first crewed mission, Dynetics plans to demonstrate that its spacecraft is reusable by landing again without people on board.
“Before the next crewed mission we’ll keep [ALPACA] in lunar orbit and we will send additional propellant for the next mission,” Crocker said. “We want to be able to reuse our spacecraft to be able to carry many different payloads to the surface.”
He imagines ALPACA carrying a wide variety of cargo up and down, including habitats and pressurized rovers.
“It can be part of a broader lunar economy, that carries things back and forth from lunar orbit,” Crocker added.
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