Recently NASA canceled work on a proposed lunar rover called the Resource Prospector, less a mission than an idea for a mission. The RP would have sent a rover to one of the lunar poles to prospect for resources, including water ice, with a drill and an onboard laboratory. Work on the concept had been ongoing for four years, even though it was never an approved mission on NASA’s manifest.
The decision to cancel the RP elicited a flurry of media reports that, in effect, NASA was canceling a lunar mission just as President TrumpDonald TrumpDeputy AG: DOJ investigating fake Trump electors Former Boston Red Sox star David Ortiz elected to Baseball Hall of Fame Overnight Health Care — Senators unveil pandemic prep overhaul MORE had ordered the space agency to return to the moon. The truth is a little more complicated.
NASA’s Lunar Exploration Analysis Group sent a letter to NASA Administrator Jim BridenstineJames (Jim) Frederick BridenstineBill Nye promotes infrastructure, social spending bills with Biden NASA can facilitate the commercial space station race SpaceX all-civilian crew returns to Earth, successfully completing 3-day mission MORE in protest. The letter was a well-reasoned argument for reinstating the Resource Prospector, suggesting that it would fulfill many of the science goals for the return to the moon program.
The letter stated, in part, “This action is viewed with both incredulity and dismay by our community, especially as the President's Space Policy Directive 1 directs NASA to go to the lunar surface. RP was the only polar lander-rover mission under development by NASA (in fact, by any nation, as all of the international missions to the lunar poles are static landers) and would have been ready for preliminary design review at the beginning of 2019.”
Bridenstine did not take long to respond on his Twitter feed.
“We’re committed to lunar exploration @NASA. Resource Prospector instruments will go forward in an expanded lunar surface campaign. More landers. More science. More exploration. More prospectors. More commercial partners. Ad astra!”
NASA then expanded on the tweet.
“NASA is developing an exploration strategy to meet the agency’s expanded lunar exploration goals. Consistent with this strategy, NASA is planning a series of progressive robotic missions to the lunar surface," according to a statement.
"In addition, NASA has released a request for information on approaches to evolve progressively larger landers, leading to an eventual human lander capability. As part of this expanded campaign, selected instruments from Resource Prospector will be landed and flown on the Moon. This exploration campaign reinforces Space Policy Directive 1, which calls for an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with commercial and international partners to enable human expansion across the solar system, including returning humans to the Moon for long-term exploration," the statement continued.
Bridenstine’s tweet and the subsequent statement from NASA referred to a new program calledCommercial Lunar Payload Services. Under CLPS, NASA would use commercial landers being developed by such companies as Moon Express and Astrobotic to deliver instruments and technology demonstration packages to the lunar surface.
These missions would be of increasing size and complexity leading to the first human footsteps on the lunar surface sometime in the mid-2020s. Some of these companies are already working with NASA under an unfunded Space Act agreement in the Lunar CATALYST program.
CLPS constitutes an approach to space flight that has already served NASA well with the Commercial Orbital Transportation Systems (COTS) and the Commercial Crew program. COTS and Commercial Crew have developed commercially operated spacecraft to send cargo and, soon, astronauts to and from the International Space Station. CLPS extends that concept to the moon.
The commercial approach to the moon means that NASA will be able to conduct more missions to the moon for less money, leveraging the nimbleness of the private sector. The space agency will not, as it did with Apollo, develop spacecraft in-house. NASA is not being given the funding to do so.
As a bonus, by aligning itself as a customer rather than an operator of lunar landing services the space agency will nurture a brand-new business sector. The same businesses that take NASA payloads to the moon will also convey those of any other customer. The return to the moon will, therefore, be on a larger scale, of a longer duration, and will be more sustainable. By going commercial rather than in-house, NASA is proving that it is serious about returning to the moon.
On the other hand, it is now time for those small companies, plus Blue Origin, which is contemplating its own lunar transportation company, to be called Blue Moon, to deliver on what they have long promised.