SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket appears to have edged out competitor United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) next-generation Vulcan Centaur launch vehicle to send a NASA rover and commercial lander to the Moon in 2023.
Back in August 2019, not long after NASA first began announcing significant contracts under its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, startup Astrobotic announced that it contracted with ULA to launch its first small “Peregrine” lander and a dozen or so attached NASA payloads to the Moon in 2021. Rather than the extremely expensive but operational Atlas V rocket, the startup instead chose to manifest Peregrine on the first launch of Vulcan Centaur, a new ULA rocket meant to replace both Atlas V and Delta IV Heavy.
Less than two years later, Astrobotic has decided to purchase a dedicated launch from SpaceX – not ULA – for even larger “Griffin” lander that aims to deliver NASA’s ice-prospecting VIPER rover to the Moon and kick off the exploration of permanently-shadowed craters at its south pole.
Back in August 2019, Astrobotic’s announcement stated that “it selected United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Vulcan Centaur rocket in a [highly competitive commercial process].” It later became clear that the Peregrine lander – while still scheduled to be sent directly to the Moon on a trans-lunar injection (TLI) trajectory – would not be the only payload on the mission. None of Vulcan Flight 1’s other payloads are known, but the presence of other paying customers helps explain how Vulcan beat SpaceX for the contract.
More importantly, companies willing to risk their payload(s) on new rockets have historically been enticed to overlook some of that first-flight risk with major discounts. In other words, in the often unlikely event that a company manages to sell a commercial rocket’s first launch, it’s incredibly unlikely that the same rocket will ever sell that cheaply again.
That appears to be exactly the case for ULA’s Vulcan Centaur rocket, which secured a lunar lander contract for its launch debut only to lose a similar lunar lander launch contract from the same company – well within the range of Vulcan’s claimed capabilities – less than two years later. If SpaceX’s relatively expensive Falcon Heavy managed to beat early Vulcan launch pricing, there is virtually no chance whatsoever that Vulcan Centaur will ever be able to commercially compete with Falcon 9.
In fact, back in 2015 when Astrobotic began making noise about its plans to build commercial Moon landers, the larger Griffin was expected to weigh some 2220 kg (~4900 lb) fully-fueled and – when combined with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 workhorse – be able to land payloads as large as 270 kg (~600 lb) on the Moon. It’s unclear if that figure assumed an expendable Falcon 9 launch or if it was using numbers from the rocket’s most powerful variant, which was still a few years away at the time.
Either way, NASA’s VIPER lander – expected to have a launch mass of ~430 kg (~950 lb) – is a bit too heavy for a single-stick Falcon 9 flight to TLI. It’s also reasonable to assume that Griffin’s dry and fueled mass has grown substantially after more than half a decade of design maturation and the first Peregrine lander reaching the hardware production and assembly phase. While Falcon 9 narrowly falls short of the performance needed for Griffin/VIPER, a fully recoverable Falcon Heavy is capable of launching more than 6.5 metric tons to TLI, offering a safety margin of almost 100%.
Astrobotic says it has purchased a dedicated Falcon Heavy launch for Griffin-1 and VIPER, but it would be far from surprising to see one or multiple secondary payloads find their way onto a mission with multiple tons of extra capacity. Presumably assuming that its Q4 2021 or early 2022 Peregrine Moon landing debut is successful, Astrobotic and SpaceX aim to land Griffin-1 and NASA’s VIPER rover on the Moon as early as “late 2023.”