NASA emphasizes commercial lunar lander plans with Resource Prospector cancellation

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WASHINGTON — A lunar rover mission that struggled to win support at NASA, even after a change in space exploration policy, will no longer be pursued as the agency turns its attention to commercial lunar lander services.

In a brief statement late April 27, NASA confirmed it no longer planned to fly the Resource Prospector (RP) mission, a lunar rover intended to travel into permanently shadowed regions of the lunar poles and assess the ability to extract water ice, a potentially valuable resource for future human missions.

Instead, the agency said, selected but unspecified instruments from RP will instead be flown on future commercial lunar lander missions under a new Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. NASA released a draft request for proposals for that program April 27.

“We’re committed to lunar exploration @NASA. Resource Prospector instruments will go forward in an expanded lunar surface campaign,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted. “More landers. More science. More exploration. More prospectors. More commercial partners.”

Bridenstine linked to a Resource Prospector page on the NASA website, which included a brief statement about the mission’s future. “As part of this expanded campaign, selected instruments from Resource Prospector will be landed and flown on the Moon,” it stated. “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 NASA statement came after an April 26 letter to NASA by the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group (LEAG), a NASA-chartered group of lunar scientists. In the letter, LEAG said it had heard that Resource Prospector had been cancelled as of April 23, with instructions to close out the project by the end of May.

“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,” stated the letter, signed by current LEAG Chair Sam Lawrence and former LEAG Chair Clive Neal. “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.”

Resource Prospector has been a mission in early stages of development at NASA for several years. For much of that time, it stood out as one of the few lunar-focused missions at the agency, with NASA’s attention devoted to the Asteroid Redirect Mission and long-term plans to send humans to Mars. The mission looked for options to fly as a payload on a lander developed by another country, such as Japan or South Korea.

Project advocates had hoped the change in policy would boost the fortunes of the mission. “The political environment, I’ll just say, was not as conducive as it is now to going to the moon,” said Anthony Colaprete, Resource Prospector project scientist, in a presentation at the LEAG annual meeting last October. At the time, he said the most likely option for flying the mission would be to carry it on a commercial lander, rather than through an international partnership.

However, even before this announcement, NASA had telegraphed that it the mission was not a priority for its lunar exploration plans. The agency’s fiscal year 2019 budget request, released in February, included no funding for the mission in its Exploration Advanced Systems (EAS) program.

“EAS is no longer pursuing a potential independent Resource Prospecting [sic] (RP) mission, but integrating the RP measurement objectives with [Science Mission Directorate] Lunar Discovery Exploration Program and lander capability advancements under the Advanced Cislunar and Surface Capabilities programs,” the agency’s budget proposal stated.

“Right now it’s a little bit nebulous where it fits in,” said John Guidi, deputy director of NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems division, during a NASA town hall meeting at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference March 19 near Houston. “It’s still good science. We still want to see it move forward. We’re just waiting to see where it falls out, organizationally speaking.”

Under CLPS, NASA plans to issue multiple indefinite-delivery indefinite-quantity (IDIQ) contracts to companies capable of delivering payloads to the lunar surface. Companies would have to demonstrate their ability to land at least 10 kilograms of payload on the lunar surface by the end of 2021. NASA expects to issue a formal request for proposals in July.

Several companies, including former competitors in the Google Lunar X Prize competition, have expressed an interest in working with NASA on launching payloads. Some of those companies have already been working with NASA on its Lunar Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown, or CATALYST, program, where NASA has provided technical support through Space Act Agreements.

“We are very excited about NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program,” Bob Richards, chief executive of Moon Express, said April 28. “NASA has been a great technology development partner to Moon Express through the Lunar CATALYST program, and the CLPS program would enable us to apply that technology to small robotic missions supporting NASA’s goals of lunar science and exploration.”

One challenge that NASA faced had it attempted to fly Resource Prospector on a commercial lander is that initial landers under development by Moon Express, Astrobotic and others have a limited payload capability. Richards, though, noted his company has a modular approach that will allow it to carry heavier payloads to the surface in the future.

“Our MX-9 lander system can deliver up to 500 kilograms to the lunar surface, and we’ve embedded Resource Prospector-class mission requirements into its design,” he said. “We’re working to have the MX-9 operationally available by 2021 for rover and sample return missions.”