The Private Sector
The next giant leap to the moon and beyond will require an array of sophisticated hardware. Here's a look at some of the systems and technology under development in Florida.
Lockheed Martin: Orion Spacecraft Factory
Years ago, the building at 6225 Vectorspace Blvd. just west of the NASA Causeway in Titusville housed a space camp and Astronaut Experience attraction where visitors could learn what it’s like to be an astronaut. Today, the site is home to Lockheed Martin’s STAR Center — a 55,000-sq.-ft. spacecraft factory for Orion, the gumdrop-shaped crew capsule that Lockheed Martin is building to ferry astronauts into orbit around the moon and beyond.
While just about every state in the nation supplies parts, materials and subassemblies for the Orion spacecraft, all of those components eventually make their way to the Space Coast for final assembly. Production activities at the 1-year-old STAR Center — short for Spacecraft, Test, Assembly Resource Center — include the assembly and testing of heat shields, panels and a thermal protection system that’s designed to protect astronauts from the 5,000 degree temperatures the capsule will encounter when it re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere at 24,600 mph. Wire harness assemblies and tubing assemblies that are part of the spacecraft propulsion system and life-support systems that carry water, oxygen and nitrogen are also built there — as is electric ground support equipment.
Once that work is complete, these subsystems head to the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building at Kennedy Space Center for final assembly of the 19-ton spacecraft. After that, it heads to the multipayload processing facility for fueling and then it’s on to the Launch Abort System Facility, where a 50-foot Launch Abort System is affixed to the top of the spacecraft. That’s a critical system that can separate the Orion crew module from the rocket in the event of an emergency during launch.
As of July, Lockheed had delivered one of its first two Orion capsules. The first is sitting on top of the Space Launch System, poised and ready for blast-off, and a second one (that will carry astronauts into space) is going through final stages of assembly at the O&C. Three additional Orion spacecraft are in various stages of production, says Lockheed Martin’s Orion Production Program Director Kelly Webster DeFazio.
While Orion bears a strong physical resemblance to its Apollo predecessors, there are key differences. Orion is 30% larger than Apollo was and has room for up to four crew members. Unlike Apollo, it also has a private bathroom as well as a compact exercise machine and a radiation shelter where astronauts can hide from solar storms. There’s also a water tank and dispenser to provide drinking water and a method to rehydrate and warm food.
For all its creature comforts, the capsule — which can sustain astronauts for up to 21 days without docking to another spacecraft — is “more a transportation module than a living quarters,” DeFazio says, and its key elements are its safety features. “It is the safest rated (spacecraft) for deep space exploration. Outfitted with radiation shields, and heat shields, it really is for deep space travel to combat those elements to ensure that our astronauts will stay safe to Mars and back,” DeFazio says.
While NASA has spent more than $13.8 billion developing and building the first two Orion spacecraft since 2006, when the project got started under the nowdefunct Constellation program, costs are coming down. A 2019 contract for a second batch of Orion capsules (for Artemis missions three through five) totaled $2.7 billion, and NASA plans to order a third batch (Artemis missions six through eight) in 2022 at a cost of $1.9 billion. NASA has an option to order another six capsules from Lockheed Martin into the 2030s.
DeFazio says savings are being realized via supply chain efficiencies that come with bulk orders and spacecraft reuse. “We will not be throwing away the crew modules as it returns back from space,” she says. “We do have a very robust reuse and recycle program that will allow us to bring our crew modules back in and incrementally repurpose and refurbish more and more of our light equipment so we can support NASA deep space exploration for years to come.”
SpaceX: Lunar Lander
In 2021, NASA chose SpaceX to land the next humans on the moon using its Starship human landing system. The 400-foot, fully reusable vehicle consists of two main parts — the Starship spacecraft and a rocket booster called Super Heavy that is outfitted with Raptor rocket engines powered by liquid oxygen and methane. The two pieces are designed to separate at the edge of space, with the boosters descending back to Earth and landing in a controlled, upright manner near the original launch site, while the shiny steel Starship — sans crew — continues on toward the moon. Once in orbit, Starship will dock with either Orion or the lunar Gateway space station, where it will pick up astronauts and shuttle them to the lunar surface.
Once their approximately week-long lunar excursion is complete, the Starship will deliver the astronauts back to Orion.
SpaceX is expanding its facilities at Kennedy Space Center to support development of the Starship. The 20-year-old company — which is owned by billionaire Elon Musk and headquartered in California — already launches its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets carrying satellites and astronauts into orbit from KSC’s Launch Complex 39A and operates a facility there called HangarX, where it processes and stores boosters and payload fairings for the Falcon rockets. Now, SpaceX is building a launch tower at 39A for the Starship, and the company is expanding its site on Roberts Road to focus on “Starship development plus integration and support of future Starship missions at Kennedy Space Center,” according to NASA’s website.
While the rural South Texas town of Boca Chica has served as the premiere launch site for Starship, SpaceX has squabbled with locals over beach and road closures and environmental concerns — and although the Federal Aviation Administration recently gave SpaceX a green light to expand its sprawling Starship facility (known as Starbase), the agency says it must take 75 actions to mitigate environmental impact. Musk hinted at a February news conference that the so-called “Starbase facility” may end up as a research and development center with KSC as the “main operational launch site.” As of July, the aerospace company had more than 100 job openings posted at Cape Canaveral.
Blue Origin: Moon Lander 2.0 and Beyond
Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ Seattle-based space flight company, will get a second crack at selling its lunar lander to NASA. While the federal space agency awarded a $2.9-billion lunar lander contract to SpaceX in 2021, it announced plans in March to “bring a second entrant to market” to develop a spacecraft in parallel with SpaceX. Blue Origin has said it plans to compete, but it may have to make some adjustments to the Blue Moon lander it originally designed for the mission. NASA is requiring the new landers to carry more crew and cargo and be able to dock with the lunar orbiting space station known as Gateway. Eventually, NASA aims to establish a habitat on the moon known as Artemis Base Camp, but for early Artemis missions, NASA’s Gateway will serve as that habitat, housing crew and equipment for moonwalks, experiments and the collection of samples.
In the meantime, Blue Origin has found success in the space tourism sector — completing five crewed missions carrying 25 people into suborbital space from its base in the West Texas desert aboard a reusable rocket system called New Shepard. The company also operates a 650,000-sq.-ft. manufacturing complex near Cape Canaveral, where it’s developing a reusable rocket called New Glenn that will be capable of carrying people and payloads into low Earth orbit and beyond. It plans to launch the massive rocket — which can carry twice the payload volume of any existing rocket — from LC-36 at Cape Canaveral, a historic site that’s hosted more than 140 Atlas rocket launches.
Among the company’s most intriguing concepts is Orbital Reef — a commercial space station it’s developing in concert with Colorado-based Sierra Space and other partners, including Boeing, Redwire, Genesis Engineering Solutions and Arizona State University. Envisioned as a “mixed-use business park” in space for commerce, research and tourism, Blue Origin and Sierra Space aim to deliver the project by 2027. In related news, Sierra Space announced in June that it will open a commercial space flight training center and astronaut academy at its offices at Kennedy Space Center, where the company’s Dream Chaser “spaceplane” is set to launch in 2023, flying cargo resupply missions to the International Space Station. Sierra Space President Janet Kavandi, a former NASA astronaut who flew three shuttle missions, will lead the training center.
Redwire: Solar Arrays and Space Manufacturing
Technology created by Redwire, a Jacksonville-based space company, has supported more than 180 missions to space, including the Parker Solar Probe mission (which has flown seven times closer to the Sun’s surface than any previous spacecraft) and deep space journeys to Pluto. The public company has also partnered with Boeing to provide solar arrays to the International Space Station and is working on a set of roll out solar arrays to power the lunar Gateway — a critical component of the Artemis program that will serve as an outpost orbiting the moon.
“We are also providing the cameras for the Orion spacecraft, both on the outside and the inside, that will provide imagery, situational awareness and orientation knowledge for the spacecraft,” says Andrew Rush, Redwire’s president and COO. “We’re doing that for the spacecraft for multiple missions.”
Rush sees other opportunities for Redwire with Artemis — particularly as it relates to manufacturing in space with lunar regolith, the fragmented rock debris, or moon dirt, that covers most of the moon’s surface. The company already has a solid track record in that area. Made in Space — a startup that Redwire acquired in 2020 — manufactured the first object in space (a ratchet wrench) in 2014 with its special Zero-G 3-D printer, which can be operated remotely and generates zero emissions. Building on that success, Redwire successfully printed sample coupons aboard the international space station in 2021 from a material resembling regolith — a demonstration that opens up a world of possibilities for space exploration.
Rush says the ability to use raw materials on the moon will be critical to the sustained, long-term presence of the Artemis program. “That will one day let us build landing pads and structure on the moon and sustainably explore the lunar surface and take it on to Mars, too,” Rush says. “Really as people go to the moon and go back there sustainably, the ability to use local resources is very important; the ability to repair things is really important.”
Eta Space: Refueling in Space
Eta Space in Rockledge knows a thing or two about cryogenic propellant, or rocket propellant. The former NASA engineers who founded it spent years working on cryogenic fluid management technology for the space agency and are now using their expertise to develop solutions to help NASA refuel vehicles in orbit and on the moon.
Since 2019, the company has been working with a Connecticut-based electrochemical systems company called Skyre on a NASA contract to develop a propellant production plant on the moon.
Jack Fox, a project manager at Eta Space, says the aim of the project is to develop a production plant at the moon’s south pole that would excavate the ice that’s located there, melt it, separate it into gaseous hydrogen and oxygen and then liquefy it and store it. It’s not the easiest of tasks. While liquid hydrogen and oxygen are robust rocket propellants, keeping them in their liquid state requires extremely cold temperatures of minus 297 degrees Fahrenheit for oxygen and minus 423 Fahrenheit for hydrogen. “What’s interesting about the south pole, the permanently shadowed regions of the moon, is that the temperatures are so cold, it assists in the liquefaction procession,” Fox says.
The Brevard company won a second “tipping point” contract from NASA in 2020, valued at $27 million, to develop the first free-flying cryogenic propellant depot in low Earth orbit. The demonstration project, known as LOXSAT (short for liquid oxygen satellite), is slated to launch in 2024 and will test how well Eta’s technology is able to overcome some of the physical challenges of transferring rocket fuel in space. If all goes as planned, it will pave the path for Eta’s next big endeavor — a fully commercial cryogenic propellant depot in space called Cryo-Dock.
Fox is bullish about the future in space. “I’m a child of the Apollo era, and at that time they said, ‘Oh yeah, we’ll have lunar bases in the ’70s, humans on the Mars in the ’80s,’ and none of that stuff happened, so it’s been disappointing, but in recent years, with this commercial era, things are happening quicker again, so I’m very optimistic that we just might live to see some of the stuff, humans on Mars, maybe in the 2030s. Certainly humans back to the moon late 2020s maybe.”
Sidus Space: Next-Gen Moon Suits
Sidus Space — a Cape Canaveral-based Artemis subcontractor that provides satellite services, space-based data collection, mission-critical hardware and a range of other space-related equipment and services — is working with Charlotte, N.C.-based Collins Aerospace (a unit of Raytheon) on a NASA contract to develop next-generation space suits that astronauts will wear when working outside of the International Space Station, and eventually, on the moon. According to Collins Aerospace, the next-gen suits it’s designing will be lighter and more comfortable and allow greater range of motion.
Dan Burbank, a Collins Aerospace senior technical fellow and former astronaut, told reporters at a June news conference that the goal is to create a suit that functions as an individual spacecraft but has the “feel of a ruggedized set of extreme sport outerwear,” according to media reports. That’s a pretty tall order, considering that the garments must protect astronauts from extreme temperatures — from minus 250 degrees Fahrenheit to 250 degrees Fahrenheit — in an environment that’s almost an absolute vacuum, devoid of air. The NASA contract has a potential value of $3.5 billion through 2034.