WASHINGTON — A California startup has developed and tested a prototype of a lunar rover that it plans to offer to NASA for use on future Artemis missions.
Venturi Astrolab revealed March 10 its work on a rover called Flexible Logistics and Exploration, or FLEX, that is intended to carry cargo or astronauts. The rover is designed to accommodate up to 1,500 kilograms of cargo, placed above or below a main deck, and either be driven remotely or by two astronauts on board.
Jaret Matthews, founder and chief executive of Astrolab, said in an interview that his company created FLEX to address a near future of lunar exploration where both crewed landers like SpaceX’s Starship and robotic landers for NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program deliver large amounts of cargo.
“FLEX really represents a rethinking of how you might approach the surface in that context,” he said. “We’re making FLEX to be the most versatile rover ever created, and the primary innovation is the fact that we have this modular payload capability.”
He contrasted FLEX with past rovers, like those developed for robotic Mars missions, that were customized for their specific missions. He worked on several Mars rover programs at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory earlier in his career as well as a concept for a lunar rover called ATHLETE during the Constellation lunar exploration program.
“That is a reasonable approach in an environment where you have an extreme emphasis on mass efficiency,” he said of those earlier designs. “But in this coming era of more lander capability, what we’re doing is thinking more about economies of scale that you might achieve if you rethink that approach.”
FLEX is more than a concept. The company built a full-sized prototype of the rover and recently tested it near Death Valley, California. They simulated using the rover for a range of activities expected for a future lunar base, such as setting up solar arrays, as well as its ability to navigate terrain either with people onboard driving it or through teleoperation.
Among those who drove FLEX in the test was former astronaut Chris Hadfield, who emphasized in a statement the value of mobility for future long-duration lunar exploration and settlement. “It was not only a joy to drive FLEX but also see its size, capability and get an intuitive sense of what this rover can do,” he said.
“He was a great fit for us,” Matthews said of Hadfield, citing the former astronaut’s experience that included serving as chief of robotics in the NASA astronaut office. “He really gets what we’re doing and the potential.”
Matthews said Hadfield and others provided invaluable feedback on the FLEX prototype, offering suggestions on changes to rover controls. “The intent was building the prototype quickly, so that we can start learning and be ready as soon as the first opportunity to go to the moon comes up,” he said.
That first opportunity may be NASA’s Lunar Terrain Vehicle (LTV) project to develop a lunar rover for future Artemis landings. The agency has issued two requests for information seeking industry input on the requirements of the vehicle, most recently in August 2021. Jacob Bleacher, chief exploration scientist at NASA Headquarters, said at an Artemis town hall during the Lunar and Planetary Sciences Conference March 9 that he expected the agency to issue a request for proposals for LTV in the next few months.
Matthews said Astrolab has been developing its vehicle with the LTV competition in mind. That includes designing the rover to meet anticipated NASA requirements like the ability to operate for an eight-hour moonwalk, be able to work at the lunar south pole and survive the lunar night there, and be able to operate for 10 years.
Astrolab will likely have major competition for the LTV contract. Lockheed Martin announced in May 2021 a partnership with General Motors to design lunar rovers but said at the time their concept was still in the early stages. Northrop Grumman announced in November it was working with several companies on a lunar rover design but also provided few technical details.
By contrast, Astrolab, based in Hawthorne, California, is a 15-person company founded two years ago after Matthews left SpaceX. He declined to state how much money the company has raised, but it does have a strategic partnership with Venturi Group, an electric vehicle developer. The companies are collaborating on technologies such as batteries and tires, with Astrolab agreeing to buy those systems from Venturi for its flight vehicles. He said Astrolab is also looking at terrestrial applications of its rover.
He was optimistic that Astrolab could have FLEX ready quickly because of the company’s approach of rapid, iterative development, which he described as “design, build, break, repeat.” NASA’s current plans don’t call for having LTV on the moon until at least the Artemis 5 mission, the second crewed landing of the program in the second half of the decade. However, he thinks it’s possible to have FLEX delivered to the moon ahead of the Artemis 3 landing, no earlier than 2025.
“I would love FLEX to be the first rover that astronauts drive since the Apollo era,” he said. “We’re moving as fast as we can and I think we’ll be ready at the first opportunity.”