Washington — NASA notified the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) March 12 that its contract to build a robotic lunar lander would be allowed to expire at the end of March and would not be renewed — at least not anytime soon.

The U.S. space agency also intends to close the Lunar Precursor and Robotics Program Office it established at the Marshall Space Flight Center last year and move management responsibility for the 2008 Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and its piggyback Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite to NASA headquarters here.

“NASA has recommended that APL’s lunar lander contract be allowed to expire at the end of March and NASA did informally notify APL of that fact on Monday,” NASA spokeswoman Beth Dickey said March 15. “This notification was not a surprise to APL. NASA specifically structured the contract to expire at the end of March.”

Dickey said NASA’s intention to let the APL contract expire and close down Marshall’s lunar robotics office is detailed in the 2007 operating plan the agency submitted to Congress March 15. By law, Congress has 15 days to review that plan — which details how NASA intends to spend the money it was given for 2007 — and request changes.

“These recommendation are the result of an overall budget strategy being adopted by the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate in an effort to meet top priority program needs and to keep development of the next generation of U.S. human space vehicles on track,” Dickey said.

The Laurel, Md.-based Applied Physics Laboratory was selected by NASA in September 2005 to work under the guidance of the Marshall Space Flight Center to design and build a robotic lander that could be launched to the Moon by 2011 to demonstrate advanced descent and landing techniques and determine whether the lunar poles harbor water ice. The mission, known at the time as Robotic Lunar Exploration Precursor 2, was given a target price tag of $400 million to $750 million.

Dickey said letting APL’s lander contract expire would directly impact 14 people at the lab, including four support contractors.

However, Walt Faulconer, APL’s civilian space business area executive, said in a March 14 interview that NASA’s decision to postpone indefinitely the robotic lander project will affect more than the people now working on the project. He said it also creates for the lab “an immediate 50-person problem that grows to 110 by the end of the year” because APL had been counting on a ramped-up lander effort to absorb engineers and scientists who are due to come off various lab-managed spacecraft projects entering less labor-intensive operational phases.

NASA has been rethinking its robotic lunar exploration strategy over the last 18 months and recently concluded that it has no immediate need for any unmanned Moon missions beyond the heavily instrumented Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter currently in development for a late 2008 or early 2009 launch. “Near-term funding is not going to be available for planning future lunar robotic programs,” Dickey said. “Those are going to be deferred until such a time as constellation requirements dictate a need for additional data beyond what will be provided by LRO and [Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite].”

NASAPRIVATE puncspace:p  Administrator Mike Griffin said as much himself in testimony before the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee March 13.

“What we need before returning with humans to the Moon actually we can get mostly from orbit,” Griffin said. “The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter together with data to be returned by other Japanese, Indian and Chinese unmanned satellites — and we share this type of scientific data … is what we need to return to the Moon.”

Griffin said the agency simply cannot afford to do the “exciting and challenging lunar surface science and new technology experiments” parts of the space community would like it to conduct.

“There is much we can do with lunar robotic science but in a world of limited money, which is where we are right now, I will defer that until we have a little bit more. We do not, in short form, need it to go to the Moon,” Griffin said.

Griffin’s current stance puts the agency seemingly at odds with one of the core objectives of the Vision for Space Exploration that U.S. President George W. Bush rolled out in January 2004. In that landmark address, Bush called for sending “a series of robotic missions to the lunar surface” starting no later than 2008 “to research and prepare for human exploration.”

NASA began dropping hints late last year that it was considering scaling back its plans to precede human missions to the Moon with a series of robotic scouts, telling congressional staffers that, at least for the time being, LRO would be the only such mission the agency undertakes.

Then in early February, as the agency rolled out its 2008 budget request, Griffin told reporters that the lunar robotic program had been identified as a potential “bill payer” for a projected $900 million shortfall the agency faces over the next several years as it comes to terms with what it will have to pay Russia and others to deliver cargo and astronauts to the international space station.

NASA officials who talked on the condition of anonymity said that the death knell for the lunar robotic program was the so-called continuing resolution Congress sent to the White House in mid February, which funded most civilian agencies at their 2006 levels for the remainder of the year. While Congress did approve a budget increase for NASA’s Exploration Systems Directorate, it was $577 million short of the roughly $900 million increase NASA said it needed to keep development of the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and Ares 1 rocket on track without inflicting deep cuts on lesser-priority exploration programs.

Benjamin Neuman, the lunar robotics program executive at NASA headquarters, said March 13 that NASA currently has “no hard requirements” for a lunar robotic program beyond LRO and as such has no other Moon-bound orbiters, rovers or landers currently “in the pipeline.”

Neuman declined to characterize the elimination of the APL-Marshall-led lander from NASA’s plans as a cancellation, saying that NASA made very clear to both organizations in April 2006 that it was seeking alternatives to the 2011 lander. Both APL and Marshall were deeply involved in that analysis of alternatives, performed as part of a broader lunar exploration planning effort that occupied the agency for much of last year.

When NASA finally unveiled its lunar architecture in December calling for building up a permanent outpost on the Moon starting with the first human mission, a series of robotic landers still figured in the plans, but were presented with the caveat that NASA might not be able to afford to do them.