Author Topic: Why is it Still So Hard to Land on the Moon? - Video Essay  (Read 1488 times)

Offline catdlr

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Why is it Still So Hard to Land on the Moon?

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Mar 25, 2024

A new race for the moon has started but 55% of the landers have failed even though we have known how to land on the moon for nearly 60 years and the technological advances since then should have made things better, shouldn't it? For example, it took a few years to get the landing techniques right the first time around but then there were no manned failures of the Apollo program on the moon apart Apollo 13 failed well before it got there, so why are we back to crashing on the moon, this video looks into this question.

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This video by CuriousDroid

Written, researched and presented by Paul Shillito
Images & Footage: Nasa, SpaceX, Roscosmos, intuitive machines, blue origin, ESA

It's Tony De La Rosa, ...I don't create this stuff, I just report it.

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I haven't watched this yet, but let me add in an anecdote:

Maybe 10 years ago I was talking to a retired Swedish space engineer who had been involved in a number of their space programs over a long time. He mentioned that at one point his company had been hired to study putting a payload on the Moon as part of an advertising campaign that would have had strong cultural impact in Sweden (think of it like Americans landing a football on the Moon). He said that once they started studying it closely, they realized how difficult it was. Lots of reasons, but it explained why up until that time only two countries had done it. They eventually abandoned the project, I think because it was going to cost way more than their sponsor was willing to spend.

A decade later and we're still reminded of that.

Offline Mondagun

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An overview of all the recent lunar landing missions:
- Chang'e 3 (14 Dec 2013, success)
- Chang'e 4 (3 Jan 2019, success)
- Beresheet (11 Apr 2019, failure): crashed into the Moon after it failed to deaccelerate enough due engine firing interruptions caused by a series of avionics reboots (which resulted from troubleshooting attempts for a malfunctioning inertial measurement unit).
- Chandrayaan-2 (6 Sep 2019, failure): crashed into the Moon due a combination of several flaws within the guidance, navigation and control algorithms.
- OMOTENASHI (Nov 2020, failure): no landing attempt took place because contact was lost shortly after launch (due to a failure to achieve a stable attitude)
- Chang'e 5 (1 Dec 2020, success)
- Hakuto-R Mission 1 (25 Apr 2023, failure): crashed into the Moon after it had been hovering at 5 km altitude until its propellant was exhausted (due to a guidance, navigation and control algorithm issue)
- Luna 25 (19 Aug 2023, failure): crashed into the Moon after a maneuvering engine failed to shut down at the time it was supposed to.
- Chandryaan-3 (23 Aug 2023, success)
- Peregrine Mission One (Jan 2024, failure): never left Earth orbit due a propellant leak.
- SLIM (19 Jan 2024, success): one thing that didn't go according to plan was that the lander had positioned itself with its solar panels facing the wrong direction, initially preventing them from catching Sunlight.
- IM-1 (22 Feb 2024, success): though it survived its landing, it broke one of its landings legs and came to rest at a 30 tilt. It landed faster and at a steeper slope than planned due to issues with its laser instruments for altitude measurement.

Offline Mondagun

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In the beginning of the video the narrator says "It is almost as if we have forgotten how to do these things that we spent the equivalent of hundreds of billions of dollars and over 10 years perfecting". Well, that's exactly it. To a large extent we have forgotten, because none of those engineers who worked on lunar landings in the 60's and 70's are active anymore (and the long gap in lunar lander missions meant that there wasn't really an impetus to transfer the complete amount of institutional knowledge to the next generation of engineers). Plus a number of Moon landers are now from countries that have never even done a previous landing in the 60's or 70's to begin with.

What hasn't changed since the 60's and 70's is that there is simply no way to perform (on Earth) a real end-to-end test of a lunar approach and descent. Engineers have to rely to a large extent on analysis and simulations, and making those sufficiently reliable is immensely tricky (even more so without the benefit of data from similar past missions).

Also, the lunar descent phase is, and has always been, absolutely unforgiving. If anything goes wrong then you don't have the option of putting the lander into safe mode and calmly taking your time to troubleshoot the issue.

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In the beginning of the video the narrator says "It is almost as if we have forgotten how to do these things that we spent the equivalent of hundreds of billions of dollars and over 10 years perfecting". Well, that's exactly it. To a large extent we have forgotten, because none of those engineers who worked on lunar landings in the 60's and 70's are active anymore (and the long gap in lunar lander missions meant that there wasn't really an impetus to transfer the complete amount of institutional knowledge to the next generation of engineers). Plus a number of Moon landers are now from countries that have never even done a previous landing in the 60's or 70's to begin with.

I'm going to quibble on this issue. If NASA had given a CLPS contract to Lockheed Martin, they would have been successful. The failure and partial failure of the two recent US missions was not because the United States lacks the expertise, but because the specific contractors were inexperienced. But this is not a CLPS thread, so I'll stop.

Offline edzieba

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In the beginning of the video the narrator says "It is almost as if we have forgotten how to do these things that we spent the equivalent of hundreds of billions of dollars and over 10 years perfecting". Well, that's exactly it. To a large extent we have forgotten, because none of those engineers who worked on lunar landings in the 60's and 70's are active anymore (and the long gap in lunar lander missions meant that there wasn't really an impetus to transfer the complete amount of institutional knowledge to the next generation of engineers). Plus a number of Moon landers are now from countries that have never even done a previous landing in the 60's or 70's to begin with.

I'm going to quibble on this issue. If NASA had given a CLPS contract to Lockheed Martin, they would have been successful. The failure and partial failure of the two recent US missions was not because the United States lacks the expertise, but because the specific contractors were inexperienced. But this is not a CLPS thread, so I'll stop.
If LM had gotten a CLPS budget along with a CLPS contract, I would not rate their chances of success any higher than any of the other CLPS contractors. LM have no more the institutional knowledge of moon landing than Boeing had the institutional knowledge of capsule building when commencing CST-100/Starliner.
Given a non-CLPS budget (add an extra 0 or two to the end) LM could have performed enough simulation and testing for a good chance of success, but so could the other CLPS contractors.

Offline Mondagun

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In the beginning of the video the narrator says "It is almost as if we have forgotten how to do these things that we spent the equivalent of hundreds of billions of dollars and over 10 years perfecting". Well, that's exactly it. To a large extent we have forgotten, because none of those engineers who worked on lunar landings in the 60's and 70's are active anymore (and the long gap in lunar lander missions meant that there wasn't really an impetus to transfer the complete amount of institutional knowledge to the next generation of engineers). Plus a number of Moon landers are now from countries that have never even done a previous landing in the 60's or 70's to begin with.

I'm going to quibble on this issue. If NASA had given a CLPS contract to Lockheed Martin, they would have been successful. The failure and partial failure of the two recent US missions was not because the United States lacks the expertise, but because the specific contractors were inexperienced. But this is not a CLPS thread, so I'll stop.
I guess this goes into the realm of speculation. I do think that if an American company with previous spacecraft mission experience would have done a lunar lander mission then the odds of success would have been greater. And the American space sector has demonstrated a mastery of other planetary lander technology in the past (the perfect landing of the Curiosity rover with the back-then completely novel sky-crane technique comes to mind). But I also think that contracting a big-name established American space company is not a guarantee that the first mission of a new system will be successful (the OFT-1 mission of the Boeing Starliner comes to mind).
« Last Edit: 03/26/2024 11:21 pm by Mondagun »

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If LM had gotten a CLPS budget along with a CLPS contract, I would not rate their chances of success any higher than any of the other CLPS contractors. LM have no more the institutional knowledge of moon landing than Boeing had the institutional knowledge of capsule building when commencing CST-100/Starliner.
Given a non-CLPS budget (add an extra 0 or two to the end) LM could have performed enough simulation and testing for a good chance of success, but so could the other CLPS contractors.

That's just silly. IM-1 and Astrobotic had never built a spacecraft. LM has built Mars landers. They have plenty of institutional knowledge and experienced engineers.

Offline edzieba

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If LM had gotten a CLPS budget along with a CLPS contract, I would not rate their chances of success any higher than any of the other CLPS contractors. LM have no more the institutional knowledge of moon landing than Boeing had the institutional knowledge of capsule building when commencing CST-100/Starliner.
Given a non-CLPS budget (add an extra 0 or two to the end) LM could have performed enough simulation and testing for a good chance of success, but so could the other CLPS contractors.

That's just silly. IM-1 and Astrobotic had never built a spacecraft. LM has built Mars landers. They have plenty of institutional knowledge and experienced engineers.
So do IM and Astrobotic - e.g. IM have plenty of Morpheus alumni, staff who worked on MSL GN&C, staff from Boeing and LM, etc.
It could be argued that IM made 'silly mistakes' like not removing the laser ground safety pin, but large traditional aerospace contractors are also not immune to such mistakes despite institutional knowledge. Forgetting to install parachute linkages, using the wrong units to calculate altitude, declining an end-to-end test and missing a timer not set correctly, etc.

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