Lunar Trailblazer faces NASA review after cost overruns

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WASHINGTON — NASA will decide the future of a lunar smallsat orbiter mission at a review this fall after cost overruns by the spacecraft’s manufacturer.

The Lunar Trailblazer mission, scheduled to launch in mid-2023 to characterize water ice deposits on the moon, will undergo a continuation/termination review by NASA Headquarters because of cost issues, said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division.

“Technically the mission is coming along very well,” said Glaze at an Aug. 23 meeting of the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group (LEAG). “There are some cost challenges with Lunar Trailblazer. There’s been some increases in the cost with the spacecraft development, and so we are working now towards a cost review that’s going to take place later this fall.”

Bethany Ehlmann, principal investigator for Lunar Trailblazer at Caltech, said in a presentation at LEAG Aug. 24 that Lockheed Martin, the spacecraft subcontractor, notified NASA of “recent and projected future overruns” on the project in June. Neither Ehlmann, NASA nor Lockheed Martin quantified those overruns.

“As we brought this mission from paper to life, the engineering and design efforts exceeded our original estimate,” Lockheed Martin said in a statement to SpaceNews Aug. 25. “Our Lockheed Martin team continues to implement cutting edge digital production tools and seek out operational efficiencies to minimize any extra cost incurred over Lunar Trailblazer’s development.”

Ehlmann said the project team was working with Lockheed to identify ways to deal with the cost overrun. That includes, she said, “developing the go-forward plan, putting it into place to make sure that we understand the cost to complete, and being in close communication with NASA to make decisions now that are appropriately balancing the cost, the risk and the science return.”

In its statement, Lockheed said it was considering steps such as “streamlining programmatic functions and evaluating test efficiency opportunities” to reduce costs on the mission.

Lunar Trailblazer was one of three missions NASA selected in 2019 as part of its Small Innovative Missions for Planetary Exploration (SIMPLEx) program of planetary science smallsat missions, along with the asteroid flyby mission Janus and EscaPADE, a mission to study the interaction of the Martian atmosphere with the solar wind. Each SIMPLEx mission has a cost cap of $55 million.

“It’s a disappointing turn of events,” said Ehlmann of the cost overrun. “We had run a competition for the spacecraft bid and selected the vendor with the best historical technical and cost performance.”

Lockheed Martin, though, was not the original spacecraft provider. When NASA selected Lunar Trailblazer in 2019, Ball Aerospace was listed as the spacecraft subcontractor. In July 2020, though, the mission elected to go with Lockheed Martin instead “after the original spacecraft partner ran into design and cost challenges.”

Before this cost overrun, Lunar Trailblazer’s biggest problem had been out of its control. NASA originally planned to launch the spacecraft as a rideshare on its Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe (IMAP) mission. Delays in IMAP, though, pushed that launched into 2025, even though the spacecraft would be ready for launch by 2023. In June, NASA announced it would instead launch Lunar Trailblazer as a secondary payload on the second Intuitive Machines lunar lander mission, scheduled for mid-2023.

The challenge of fitting a smallsat planetary mission into a $55 million budget was mentioned in the planetary science decadal survey published in April, which recommended that NASA increase the cost cap for SIMPLEx missions by 50%. NASA, in its initial response to the decadal earlier this month, said the recommendation “mirrors a debate that NASA has been having internally for quite some time” but that it was continuing to study the issue.

“We’re doing something hard, which is the delivery of science data that are of the quality of a Discovery or New Frontiers mission,” Ehlmann said at the LEAG meeting, referring to two classes of larger planetary science missions, “at almost an order of magnitude lower cost.”