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NASA Gives the Green Light to Lunar Terrain Vehicle Teams

NASA’s LTV will help enable greater mobility for Artemis astronauts as they explore the lunar surface.
Credit: NASA

On Wednesday, April 3rd, NASA announced the three teams of commercial companies that will develop concepts for the Lunar Terrain Vehicle, an unpressurized rover which will provide mobility for astronauts as part of NASA’s Artemis program. The three awardees for the initial contract are Intuitive Machines, leading the Moon RACER team, Lunar Outpost, leading the Lunar Dawn team, and Astrolab, leading the FLEX team. This award is the latest in a series of commercially-procured services that will form the backbone of lunar exploration capabilities for the Artemis program. Over the next year, these three diverse teams will compete to develop a winning design to support astronauts during the Artemis V mission. As a crucial component of the Artemis architecture, the Lunar Terrain Vehicle will be a key watch item in the coming years, and this award is a major opportunity for commercial players to cement their role in the future of human spaceflight.

The Lunar Terrain Vehicle

At Wednesday’s press conference, Lara Kearney, manager of the Extravehicular Activity (EVA) and Human Surface Mobility Program at NASA, explained that the LTV is the second of three surface exploration capabilities that the agency plans to use during the early stages of the Artemis program. The first of these is the EVA spacesuit used by astronauts to walk on the lunar surface. Although spacesuits allow astronauts to directly interact with their environment, they are limited in range. A person can only walk so far, and an EVA suit is a self-contained spacecraft with limited resources like oxygen and water. So, the LTV is a logical extension of EVA mobility: an unpressurized rover that astronauts wearing EVA suits can drive to travel further and faster than they could on foot. As emphasized by Jacob Bleacher, NASA’s chief exploration scientist, the LTV is therefore a crucial element to unlock further exploration of the Moon for the Artemis program.

Artist’s concept showing a generic Lunar Terrain Vehicle among other Artemis surface elements.
Credit: NASA

The LTV succeeds the historic Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) of the Apollo program, which provided similar capability more than 50 years ago. Unlike the Apollo LRV, however, the Artemis LTV will also function as a remotely-operated robotic rover, similar to those NASA currently operates on Mars. The LTV will be able to move between landing sites on the lunar surface to meet crew prior to their arrival. Additionally, between crewed missions, the LTV will be used to explore the Moon independently, allowing continuous exploration of the lunar South Pole region.

Jim Irwin works with the Lunar Roving Vehicle during Apollo 15. The LTV expands on the capabilities provided by this historic vehicle.
Credit: NASA

The LTV is being procured via the Lunar Terrain Vehicle Services (LTVS) contract, through which NASA hopes to acquire lunar mobility as a commercially-provided service. This commercial model has become the norm for NASA in the 2020s, and is similar to that used to procure spacesuits under the xEVAS contract. This week’s award is the first in a series of task orders, representing the initial feasibility study by which each provider will develop their concepts with NASA funding. For the next twelve months, these teams will receive NASA input and mature their designs towards a preliminary design review. Kearney detailed that NASA has made a wealth of research data available to the providers, and has offered its test facilities – such as gravity offloading cranes and soil bins – for companies to utilize as they see fit.

The ARGOS crane system, used to offload the weight of people and objects to simulate reduced or zero gravity. NASA will provide facilities such as this one to LTV providers for testing. Credit: NASA

Notably, the LTVS contract also encompasses delivery of the LTV to the Moon, leaving each team to select its own launch vehicle and lander. At the end of this twelve-month period, the next task order will decide which provider is ultimately chosen to conduct a demonstration mission to the Moon ahead of Artemis V.

The teams chosen for the initial feasibility study represent a diverse blend of established aerospace contractors and younger players, as well as a number of supporting contributors from outside the traditional space industry. 

Intuitive Machines & Moon RACER

Intuitive Machines is the prime contractor and awardee for the Moon RACER team, and is best known for its role in the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative. Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lander Odysseus was the first to reach the lunar surface mostly intact during the IM-1 mission. At the press conference, CEO and co-founder Steve Altemus asserted that, despite the mission’s hardships, IM-1 cemented the company’s experience in landing payloads on the lunar surface. Indeed, Intuitive Machines will use its larger, upcoming Nova-D lander to deliver the LTV to the Moon, in addition to providing high-level systems integration, mission planning, and operations capabilities to the rest of its team. Partners AVL and Michelin join from the automotive industry, and will focus on the development of features such as steering, suspension, and airless tires for the LTV, as well as solutions for autonomy and battery electric vehicles.

A render of the Moon RACER team’s LTV concept.
Credit: Intuitive Machines

Notably, the Moon RACER team is backed by two titans of the aerospace industry: Northrop Grumman and Boeing. The group first appeared in 2021 under the leadership of Northrop Grumman, which at the time was expected to lead the vehicle’s development. However, per the team’s press release following Wednesday’s announcement, Boeing is now expected to lead the “overall design” of the LTV itself, from design and manufacturing through testing and integration. Boeing was the prime contractor for the original Apollo LRV, and its central role on the Moon RACER team suggests that the final rover will be chiefly a Boeing product. Indeed, concept art revealed alongside the award announcement depicts a conservative design which closely parallels the configuration of the Apollo LRV. Altemus stressed during the press conference that much of the design is still in trade, however, and it remains to be seen how the Moon RACER vehicle will evolve over time.

Lunar Outpost & Lunar Dawn

Lunar Outpost is the prime contractor and awardee for the Lunar Dawn team. Hailing from Colorado, the company bills itself as the “leading commercial planetary mobility provider,” and is heavily focused on lunar robotics. Lunar Outpost has spent the past few years developing a series of small robotic “MAPP” rovers for the lunar surface, the first of which is set to launch on the IM-2 CLPS mission later this year. CEO and founder Justin Cyrus asserted Lunar Outpost’s interest in the robotic features of the vehicle, including navigation and autonomy, which set it apart from the historic LRV.

A render of the Lunar Dawn team’s LTV concept.
Credit: Lunar Outpos

Like the Moon RACER team, Lunar Dawn is backed by the weight of giants: Lockheed Martin and General Motors. Lockheed Martin is intimately familiar with human-rated deep space vehicles, such as the Orion spacecraft, and is expected to provide key insight into human systems integration for the Lunar Dawn team. Meanwhile, General Motors was responsible for much of the mobility system on the original Apollo LRV. The two companies previously touted a joint concept for the LTV in 2021, and updated renders appear to show an evolution of this design. Furthermore, Lockheed and GM accepted partner MDA Space into their team in 2022. MDA Space was a major contractor for robotic arms like Canadarm and Canadarm2, used on the Space Shuttle and the ISS, and is concurrently developing Canadarm3 for the Gateway station. At the time, MDA Space was expected to lend its robotics expertise to develop an arm for the LTV. Now under the Lunar Dawn banner, the company’s skills bolster the team’s emphasis on uncrewed operation of the rover.

While Lunar Outpost has already developed its own robotic rovers, Lunar Dawn also seeks to leverage experience from the automotive industry in its design. Cyrus on Wednesday called attention to General Motors’ developments in battery technology to support electric vehicles on Earth, which he stressed are important for the entire “Artemis ecosystem” beyond the LTV. Goodyear, like its counterpart Michelin for Moon RACER, will develop tires for the lunar environment.

Astrolab & FLEX

Of the three awardees, Astrolab, prime contractor for the FLEX team, is perhaps the odd one out. Astrolab is an American company closely associated with the Venturi group, an electric vehicle company based in Monaco. Venturi has developed competitive and experimental electric vehicles for challenging environments, and provides experience in battery technology and electric drivetrain systems. Astrolab is a space-focused spinoff of its parent; its sole product is the FLEX rover, and the company has operated prototypes and conducted human-in-the-loop testing in the desert over the past few years. CEO and founder Jaret Matthews traces his experience back to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, including relevant work on several Mars rovers. Astrolab has even signed a contract with SpaceX to send a FLEX prototype to the Moon aboard a Starship lander no earlier than 2026.

A render of the FLEX team’s LTV concept.
Credit: Astrolab

Like the other awardees, the FLEX team is joined by a heritage aerospace contractor, Odyssey Space Research. Though perhaps unfamiliar to the public, Odyssey Space Research is no less a giant in the field. It provides services including flight software, guidance and control, simulation, avionics, and human spaceflight operations to a vast array of projects: the ISS, Cygnus, Dream Chaser, and Orion, to name but a few. While Astrolab is a newcomer to the industry, Odyssey’s expertise in complex spaceflight systems may lend needed assurance to their proposal.

Intriguingly, Astrolab has also partnered with Axiom Space. Axiom is an interesting outlier amidst a dichotomy of new and old contractors in the LTVS arena. Though much younger than companies like Boeing or Lockheed Martin, Axiom has already flown several private astronaut missions aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, gaining experience with human spaceflight which it intends to leverage for its upcoming space station. Axiom is also a provider under the xEVAS contract, and is slated to provide spacesuits for the first few Artemis landings – suits which astronauts may well be wearing when they strap into an LTV later this decade. As such, Axiom’s contribution to the FLEX team will focus on human systems integration, suit interfaces, and EVA tools and equipment.

The Road Ahead

The award of this initial task order paints an interesting picture. Two of these teams – Moon RACER and Lunar Dawn – are principally partnerships between legacy contractors, who appear to be spearheading LTV development alongside an assemblage of supporting partners. Yet in both cases, the youngest blood is identified as the prime contractor, set to interface directly with the NASA LTVS contract. Perhaps the newer companies are eager to cut their teeth on such an important award. The Lunar Terrain Vehicle, central as it is to the Artemis campaign, is a tantalizing opportunity for rising players in commercial space to make a name for themselves in human spaceflight, and to take a seat among contractors whose names populate space-age history texts. Though the old titans may pull much of the weight for vehicle design, the dynamic between them and their younger partners may prove one of mentorship, passing the torch to a new generation. 

Certainly, there is no shortage of dreams among the newspace executives present at Wednesday’s press conference. When asked about their vehicle’s innovations and contributions to a sustained presence on the Moon, each team had a unique vision for the future. Altemus drew upon Intuitive Machines’ role as a CLPS provider, comparing piecewise cargo flights using Nova-D to regional delivery on Earth. The Moon RACER vehicle would further extend this role, helping to distribute equipment and supplies across the lunar surface over the lifetime of the program. Cyrus called attention to the role of the LTVS contract in opening up cislunar space to non-traditional players, as well as the potential for Artemis technologies to export value to Earth. Lunar Dawn is paying special attention to precision navigation and remote or autonomous operations, which he envisions will support breakthroughs in terrestrial applications such as autonomous vehicles. Matthews turned his focus to space architecture and lunar surface infrastructure, including the need for power networks, assembled habitats, roads, launch pads, and berms. The FLEX team is working to provide a flexible platform which can serve many use cases beyond crew transportation.

Artist’s concept of an astronaut looking out over the lunar surface. The LTV will enable the future of human exploration on the Moon.

Still, these companies have a long way to go to accomplish their visions. Twelve months from now, just one of these teams will be selected to proceed towards the lunar surface, so the pressure is on in the meantime to produce a compelling product that balances ambition and innovation with feasibility in a reasonable timeframe. Artemis V seems distant at the moment; NASA’s latest budget request has the mission penciled in for 2030, though the LTV’s demonstration mission is expected to begin some time before the crew’s arrival. Kearney disclosed that, as the program schedule continues to adjust, NASA remains open to remanifesting the LTV’s debut to an earlier mission, and additional providers may be on-ramped over the next decade as needed. Though the LTV is small, its role in the Artemis program is anything but. The race is on, and with this first task order, NASA continues to lay the foundation for a bold future on the Moon.

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