NASA Outlines Requirements for Lunar Terrain Vehicle

NASA is preparing to send out a request for proposals for a Lunar Terrain Vehicle (LTV) that will be used with the Artemis Program. The LTV will have to be suitable for use at the lunar south pole, which will pose challenges like low lighting and intense cold.

NASA is framing the request for proposal as an “LTV as a service” type proposal in which the company will own the LTV and NASA will rent it. The space agency takes the same approach for the Commercial Crew program and the Human Landing System that will land its crews on the Moon. For example, SpaceX owns its four Crew Dragons, which can be used (and reused) for sending astronauts to the International Space Station and private missions like Inspiration4.

NASA invites the aerospace industry to provide input until December 1. It plans to have the LTV ready for use in future Artemis missions by 2028.

“This draft is one of the first important steps in this exciting project that will allow astronauts to explore farther on the Moon than ever before,” says Lara Kearney, manager of the Extravehicular Activity (EVA) and Human Surface Mobility (HSM) Program at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. “Gaining industry feedback is crucial as we move forward in issuing a final request for proposal.”

The LTV isn’t NASA’s first “moon buggy.” However, it will be a “new and improved” one.

NASA last had astronauts driving around on the Moon during the Apollo program, when it started sending the Lunar Rover Vehicle with Apollo 15. The Lunar Rover Vehicle was last used on Apollo 17, which set a record for for longest crewed drive on another world. The above video shows Apollo 16 putting the Lunar Rover Vehicle through a speed test. (Early astronauts generally liked fast vehicles regardless of whether they were planes, cars, or Lunar Rover Vehicles.)

The LTV will use technologies that simply weren’t available during the Apollo missions of the 1960s and 1970s. Nathan Howard, project manager for the LTV at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, compared NASA’s “shopping” for an LTV to buying or leasing a car – one that may have safety features, sensors, and computerized systems that a vintage vehicle from the 1960s would not have:

“Most people do a lot of research before buying a car. … We’re doing extensive research for a modern space vehicle that will be provided by industry. As we plan for long-term exploration of the Moon, the LTV won’t be your grandfather’s Moon Buggy used during the Apollo missions.”

As usual, NASA will have a few options to choose from.

NASA will have a few makes and models to choose from if aerospace companies have their way. Northrop Grumman and Astrolab already working on versions of the LTV. So is Teledyne Brown Engineering with help from Nissan and Sierra Space.

SpaceX might be sitting this one out, but then, it already has a lot on its plate between working for a Starship-derived Human Landing System for the Artemis Program, preparing to launch components of the Lunar Gateway, and working with other NASA contractors to launch robotic lunar exploration missions to pave the way for crewed missions.

Why focus on the lunar south pole?

The lunar south pole is one of the few places on the Moon where frozen water might be found near the surface. This makes it uniquely suited for a potential future lunar base, which could make use of In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) as much as possible.

ISRU involves using local resources as much as possible. This could save on the “shipping costs” involved in developing infrastructure in space because it means a reduced need to send supplies from Earth. Water can be used by the astronauts for drinking and hygiene, and also for chemistry-related applications like making rocket fuel to return to Earth with.

Of course, we must find these resources first. The south pole is one likely place to find water that would be hidden from the intense heat of the sun. The Moon doesn’t have Earth’s thick atmosphere to provide the pressure needed to keep water liquid when exposed to the sun.

NASA’s Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) is one probe that will search for water at the Moon’s south pole. It will land on the Moon in 2024.

Once we find water, we can send the tools needed to separate the water into hydrogen and oxygen using a process called electrolysis – using electric current to split molecules into their constituent atoms. The International Space Station already uses electrolysis to provide oxygen for its crews to breathe.

At some point, electrolysis in space could help future space explorers refuel their spacecraft while on their way to other interesting destinations in the solar system. Besides the shadowed regions of the Moon, frozen water could be found in the asteroid belt.

“Creating space fuel depots would allow spacecraft to travel much farther and allow missions and satellites to sustain operations,” says Karen Panetta, an IEEE Fellow and Dean for Graduate Education, Tufts University.

This could save on costs by saving on the mass that needs to be lifted out of Earth’s gravity well with each mission. (Remember, fuel has mass.) NASA had considered using the future Lunar Gateway space station as a fuel depot for future missions to other planets like Mars, but that idea fell by the wayside.

The idea was a cause for some debate among supporters of crewed Martian exploration missions. The below video was a debate between Mars Society president Robert Zubrin and South California Commercial Spaceflight Center Director Greg Autry.

(For a while, Dr. Zubrin made debates on the latest in Mars exploration a fixture at the annual Mars Society conferences. He’d debate an empty chair if his debate opponent didn’t show up, as the below video shows.)

As importantly, water at the lunar south pole provides a vital resource for a future lunar base. If you’ve ever lifted the water jugs for your office’s water cooler, you know how heavy it can be. That would be one less thing that NASA would have to send a lot of when it starts establishing a permanent presence on the Moon.