NASA has big plans for the Moon. Through the Artemis Program, NASA plans to create a program of “sustained exploration and lunar development.” This will include the creation of the Lunar Gateway, an orbital habitat that will facilitate missions to and from the surface, and the Artemis Base Camp that will allow for extended stays. Through its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, NASA has contracted with commercial partners like SpaceX and Blue Origin to deliver scientific experiments and crew to the lunar surface.

However, these efforts are expected to culminate in the creation of a permanent outpost and human presence on the Moon. This will require far more in the way of crew and payload services to ensure crews can be sustained in the long run. In a recent white paper, “Lunar Surface Cargo,” NASA researchers identified a significant gap between current cargo delivery capabilities and future demand. The paper indicates that this growing cargo demand can only be met by creating a “mixed cargo lander fleet.”

Key Findings

As the authors indicate in the paper, NASA’s Moon to Mars Architecture Definition Document (ADD) (Revision A) cites the need for a wide variety of landing systems. In section 3 (subsection, the ADD addresses the CLPS program and the need for cargo landers as part of the larger subject of transportation systems:

“Lunar surface exploration will require the delivery of assets, equipment, and supplies to the lunar surface. While some supplies and equipment may be delivered with crew on HLS, cargo landers provide additional flexibility and capability for robust exploration. In the HLR segment of the exploration campaign, additional cargo delivery can be provided through NASA’s CLPS Provider Landers.”

To date, NASA has selected fourteen companies to deliver payloads during the Human Lunar Return (HLR) exploration segment. This includes SpaceX, Blue Origin, Ceres Robotics, Sierra Nevada Corporation, and Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems, selected in November 2019 to deliver crew and cargo. It also the nine additional companies that were contracted to deliver science experiments in 2018 and 2022, such as Firefly Aerospace, Intuitive Machines, Lockheed Martin Space, Moon Express, and Astrobotic – the first commercial vendor to launch a mission to the Moon (Peregrine-1), which unfortunately did not land on the lunar surface.

However, as the Artemis Program transitions from the HLR to other segments, the need for cargo deliveries will expand dramatically. As stated in the ADD, this will include the Foundational Exploration (FE) segment, which will coincide with Artemis IV and Artemis V (currently planned for 2026 and 2028, respectively) and will consist of NASA expanding its “lunar capabilities, systems, and operations supporting complex orbital and surface missions.” After Artemis VI takes place in 2031, NASA anticipates sending a crewed mission a year to the Moon.

Artist’s concept of the Blue Moon lander. Credit: Blue Origin

At this point, the Sustained Lunar Evolution (SLE) segment will begin, consisting of “enabling capabilities, systems, and operations to support regional and global utilization (science, etc.), economic opportunity, and a steady cadence of human presence on and around the Moon.”

Growing Demand

To assess the growing need for lunar landers and transportation systems, NASA analyzed a representative sample of planned cargo for the Artemis Program and potential needs. Once again, these needs are broken down by segment, with each sample item represented by a potential mass range (see table below). They also include one-time payloads for habitation, mobility systems, power and communications, freezers, various science and technology payloads, and recurring logistics delivery missions that will include food, water, air, spare parts, and other necessities.

The authors note that the initial crewed missions using the Starship HLS (Artemis III and IV) will be short-duration, so the landers will be able to carry the necessary supplies. However, future missions will need additional surface elements to accommodate longer-duration missions, the range of exploration, and the size of the crew. For instance, as the Human Landing Return segment transitions to Foundational Exploration, the planned and potential payloads in the sample reflect these growing needs.

Examples include the delivery of the Lunar Mobility Vehicle (LMV), Vertical Solar Array Technologies, a mobile Lunar Surface Relay, an IP Mobility System, the Endurance Rover, a Sample Return Freezer, and a Fission Surface Power (FSP) reactor (an expansion of NASA’s Kilopower project). These payloads will allow for extravehicular activities (EVAs), the provision of power and communications for a future habitat, and the ability to conduct sample return missions from the South Pole-Aitken Basin.

Planned and potential cargo to the lunar surface. Credit: NASA

Beyond this, NASA anticipates the delivery of the elements that make up the Artemis Base Camp. This includes a Pressurized Rover – aka. the Habitable Mobility Platform (HMP) – and the Initial Surface Habitation – the Lunar Foundation Surface Habitat (LFSH) – which will culminate in the creation of regular Surface Habitats. They also consider the logistical needs for crews of two operating with the HMP and crews of four operating within the LFSH. During the Sustained Lunar Evolution segment, there are the deliveries associated with creating an ISRU Pilot Plant and the ongoing logistical needs.

In sum, NASA predicts that future demands for cargo will range from 2,500 to 10,000 kg (~5,510 to 22,045 lbs) a year for annual recurring logistics. They also predict that occasional large cargo deliveries (rovers or habitation modules) of up to 15,000 kg (33,070 lbs) could occur during the Foundational Exploration campaign segment. The “Lunar Mobility Drivers and Needs” white paper, part of the 2024 Moon to Mars Architecture series, provides a detailed breakdown of the logistical requirements.


Regarding the current payload capabilities, the authors acknowledge NASA’s cooperation with private industry and international partners. This includes the CLPS, HLS, and the Human-class Delivery Landers (HDL) programs responsible for developing crew and cargo landers. Meanwhile, international partners like the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) are collaborating on potential cargo delivery services. As they demonstrate, small payloads of 500 kg (1100 lbs) that will support logistics in the SLE segment are within the capabilities of the CLPS program.

The heavier payloads, which include the elements of the Artemis Base Camp, range from 12,000 to 15,000 kg (26,455 to 33,070 lbs), which is within the capabilities of the HDL program. This leaves a gap between the 500 kg and 12,000 kg, which accounts for the vast majority of necessary payloads in the FE segment. These payloads are foundational to NASA’s long-term plans for a program of “sustained lunar exploration and development.” As a result, demand for these elements and the related support services is high.

Artist’s impression of an Orion spacecraft rendezvousing with the Lunar Gateway. Credit: NASA

Additional Considerations

In addition to landers providing cargo deliveries, they must provide access to diverse locations across the South Pole-Aitken Basin that satisfy mission objectives. Specific locations that are named include the Hawthorn Crater, the peak near Shackleton Crater, the rim of the Faustini Crater, the De Gerlache Crater, Malapert Mastiff, and connecting ridges covering a region measuring about 500 km2 (310 mi2). These sites are key locations for solar arrays, ice collecting, and transportation networks.

NASA also identified gaps for lunar cargo and sample return, where the capacity of existing vehicles greatly exceeds the return capability. To this end, the white paper recommends a range of cargo providers that will allow for diversity and flexibility. This approach addresses “some key lessons learned from the International Space Station, including the need for dissimilar redundancy to avoid a situation in which any system becomes a single point of failure.”

In conclusion, NASA has identified a “substantial architectural gap in lander capability” that will grow as the Foundational Exploration segment continues and gives way to the Sustained Lunar Evolution phase. But as they note, this presents major opportunities for NASA and industry partners to create a mixed cargo lander fleet that “meets cargo delivery demands, enables longer missions, sends more crew members to the surface, and empowers a larger exploration footprint.” This, they add, is essential to achieve the objectives of NASA’s Moon to Mars mission architecture.

Additional details regarding payload services and transportation are provided in another white paper, “Lunar Mobility Drivers and Needs,” released concurrently with the paper mentioned above. These and other considerations will be addressed in greater detail in the 2024 Architecture Concept Review (2024 ARC), which is due to be released later this year. This review will include white papers on NASA’s lunar surface strategy and cargo return needs.

Further Reading: NASA