OPINION – It’s Time to Send a Lander like Morpheus to the Moon

SaintsCadet: Morpheus is NASA’s little known but highly successful test program of a prototype lunar lander that could one day successfully land men, women, and cargo on the Moon.

Morpheus was born from a vision of NASA’s Johnson Space Center’s Director of Engineering back in the late 2009 – a project called “Project M”.  “Project M“ was an ambitious attempt to send a “Robonaut” to the moon in 3 years – a robotic version of one of NASA’s astronauts built at Johnson Space Center (JSC).  2009 was just after the cancellation of the Constellation Program, the US’s attempt to go back to the Moon to stay, and its cancellation was a real hit to our NASA workforce both from a morale and technological-advancement point of view.  Our far-thinking Director of Engineering felt that NASA needed something to reinvigorate the working troops and to continue pushing the technology and working skills along for an eventual return to the Moon.  So he came up with “Project M”.   To accomplish Project M required design, test and manufacture of a reliable lunar lander.  So from that directive came NASA-JSC’s prototype lander program.  NASA’s “Lunar X Prize” contest provided a catalyst for us to kickstart our lander effort by partnering with Armadillo Aerospace, one of the “Lunar X” contestants, to build parts of the lander.  We worked about 9 months on “Project M” and the prototype lander.  Unfortunately, ultimately the internal NASA politics, in-fighting between the centers, and the lack of interest from Washington of the objectives of “Project M”, wasn’t conducive for “Project M” to continue.  Ultimately the project died and morphed into a lunar lander only project called “Project Morpheus” (yes, we tried to still stick with a name that started with M).

I was lucky to be part of Project Morpheus at it’s on-set under Project M.  The goal was to test key technologies needed for both a robotic or human lander and to demonstrate these technologies worked on Earth.  Later I left the program, but continued to monitor it from the side with great interest, as did all of JSC, KSC, and NASA.  One of the key things about Project Morpheus was that the hardware was designed, built, and tested by NASA engineers and technicians – allowing them to gain considerable design experience and confidence that they may not have the opportunity to gain otherwise.

Of all the vehicles that NASA has built, the lander is unique in that you can build a close representative of the actual vehicle and test it almost fully on Earth.  Earth’s gravity is different from the Moon’s, and of course there is the Earth’s atmosphere to contend with.  But you can fly a lunar vehicle and send it through a near actual trajectory on Earth.  This was later successfully demonstrated multiple times by NASA at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida with the Morpheus lander prototype.

Morpheus ultimately made thirteen successful “lunar” flights and one night flight at KSC.  It’s prime objectives was to develop 3D autonomous navigation landing technology and key new liquid oxygen/methane propulsion technology.  The propulsion technology was higher performing than Apollo’s lunar technology.  The concept is key if we ever want to go to Mars.  And the tests at KSC successfully demonstrated the viability of this technology.

Yes there were bumps along the way.  Morpheus’ maiden free flight at KSC spectacularly  crashed within seconds of ignition.  That unfortunately can happen in prototype testing.  The important thing is to learn from these failures not give up.  And our JSC Director of Engineering, the Morpheus Project Manger, and the NASA Administrator didn’t let this destroy or cancel the project.  The Morpheus team pushed through to build a new and better lander based on the failure’s “lessons learned”.

NASA faces a critical decision.  The initial test goals of Morpheus are now complete.  Does NASA stand down the team or continue?  I strongly vote for continuance.  But the rumors are that the project will no longer be funded, even though the vehicle has proven to be wonderfully successful.  NASA has only scratched the surface of the technologies and skills needed to build future space vehicles.  All the newly learned skills of the engineers could slowly be lost or set aside if the team stands down and goes its separate ways.

There are still technologies to be developed for a lunar lander mission – including use of new composites, thermal protection, updated avionics, radiation protection, etc.  Surviving the harsh environment of the Moon is not easy.  The list is long.  And all of these technologies can be developed in a fully working model of an actual lander tested on Earth like Morpheus.

It has been over 40 years since Apollo.  It takes huge effort to re-constitute both the skills and technology for going to other places in our solar system.  Space X has been building a launch company for over 10 years and only recently seen the fruits of their labor.  NASA needs to support projects that help build our young engineer’s design skills and keeps them interested in staying with the agency.  I see Morpheus as a strong tool for these endeavors.

And maybe… just maybe… even Project M or something as ambitious could see the light of day.  Imagine having a fly-off between Space X, a Boeing/Lockheed led team, and an internal NASA team working with the small passionate space companies that have come on the scene to put a robot on the moon.  Space X’s Falcon heavy launch vehicle probably has enough performance to send all three to the moon in a single flight.

Attached to this article is a wonderful video of Morpheus’ thirteenth successful free flight test at Kennedy Space Center.  The Morpheus team makes it look easy, but getting there was anything but.  I hope this video inspires you as much as it does us.  Other videos, including the night flight, are available on the Morpheus web site at morpheuslander.jsc.nasa.gov and YouTube.

Video Credit: nasa.gov – Morpheus Lander Team – YouTube – 2014

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One thought on “OPINION – It’s Time to Send a Lander like Morpheus to the Moon

  1. Unfortunately Morpheus may be stuck with the rest of NASA’s human space flight plans or lack thereof. There is no real plan other than surviving until the next administration. Without a roadmap there is no easy way to maintain useful steps like Morpheus along the way. Let’s hope for the best.

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