Foust Forward | For NASA’s return to the moon, a little something to cheer about

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“Foust Forward” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column runs in the Dec. 3, 2018 issue.

When NASA announced its Commercial Lunar Payload Services program earlier this year, there was some question at first about how to pronounce its vowel-less acronym, CLPS. The consensus soon was to insert an imaginary “i” in the middle, so that it sounded like “clips.”

Maybe, though, it should be pronounced “claps.” There was certainly a lot of clapping at NASA Headquarters Nov. 29 when NASA announced the nine companies it selected to participate in CLPS. Clapping when representatives of the companies were paraded onstage. Clapping for a promotional video that kicked off the event. Clapping for NASA astronaut Stan Love who, on a video link from the Johnson Space Center, bounced across a floor wearing a harness to simulate the moon’s one-sixth gravity. Clapping even for a Mars spacecraft, InSight, that landed on the planet three days earlier. (“We’re still on that Mars high,” quipped Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science.)

The result was a spectacle that was an unusual way to roll out a new commercial initiative. Students from local FIRST Robotics teams got more air time during the event than the companies winning contracts, and more opportunities to ask questions of NASA leadership than the journalists in the room or on the phone. “Personally, a happy day, but what an odd event,” remarked a representative of one of the winning companies afterward.

NASA CLPS kids
A Nova Labs Robotics “BrainStorm Troopers” team member from Reston, Virginia asks a question during NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) announcement Nov. 29, 2018 at NASA Headquarters in Washington. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

The cheering children overshadowed the fact that, for now, the CLPS awards are a little underwhelming. While the agency said the contracts have a total value of $2.6 billion over 10 years, that is a maximum value for those indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity awards. For now, each company gets only a token amount to produce payload users’ guides, with no guarantee they’ll get any more.

The companies will now have to compete against each other — and potentially additional companies in the future — for task orders to fly individual payloads, which NASA is still in the process of identifying. The companies also have to raise money for, and build, their landers: by and large what they offered were concept art and mockups, with designs still no further along than the critical design review level of maturity.

But even though the announcement lacked much substance, the program is still an important one for NASA and industry. Some companies noted after the event that the awards will help them raise money from investors by demonstrating that they have a real, and potentially lucrative, customer for their vehicles. The absence of such customers during the now-defunct Google Lunar X Prize competition made it difficult for many companies to fund their landers and thus attempt to win the prize.

NASA sees CLPS as a way to achieve low-cost science at the moon, including work identifying resources that could support future human exploration. More importantly, though, it acknowledges that CLPS is a risky endeavor, with many companies likely to suffer technical or financial failures. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine compared the class of CLPS companies to a venture capitalist’s portfolio: only a few need to make it for the overall program to be a success.

And if it is a success, CLPS could go a long way toward achieving that “sustainable” return to the moon that has been NASA’s mantra since the signing of Space Policy Directive 1 nearly a year ago. Even as many other aspects of NASA’s lunar plans remain uncertain or, in the case of the Gateway, subject to criticism, helping establish a commercial means of going to the moon — one that could be expanded over time to support larger, more complex payloads — could go a long way toward ending the past decades’ stop-and-go efforts to get back to the lunar surface.

If CLPS achieves that, it will certainly be worth a round of applause.