VIPER rover
NASA plans to launch a rover called VIPER in late 2022 to look for water ice at the south pole of the moon. Credit: NASA Ames/Daniel Rutter

HONOLULU — NASA has delayed the release of a task order that’s part of its commercial lunar lander program for the delivery of a rover at the south pole of the moon, a decision some lander companies have quietly welcomed.

NASA spokesperson Grey Hautaluoma said Jan. 8 that NASA had decided to postpone the release of a final version of a task order for the delivery of the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER. He said that decision was based on feedback from a workshop discussion the agency had with companies who are part of the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program and thus eligible to bid on task orders. NASA, he said, wanted to take more time to incorporate those comments, reflecting “the complexity of the VIPER delivery.”

NASA formally announced VIPER in October, although agency officials had discussed the proposed mission at science meetings earlier last year. The rover, similar to a previous mission called Resource Prospector cancelled in 2018, will probe permanently shadowed regions of craters near the south pole to characterize water ice believed to exist there.

While the $250 million rover is not scheduled for launch until late 2022, NASA decided to move quickly through the CLPS program to identify a lander that would deliver VIPER to the moon. Steve Clarke, deputy associate administrator for exploration in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, told members of the NASA Advisory Council’s science committee in November that NASA expected to select a lander for VIPER in late January or early February.

Industry sources familiar with the CLPS program previously told SpaceNews that they had heard the final version of the VIPER task order had been delayed, but weren’t told the reason why or how long the delay would be.

With the VIPER mission on hold, NASA has decided to proceed with a separate task order for smaller science payloads, similar to the ones awarded in May 2019 to Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines. Hautaluoma said that, given the VIPER delay, “we did not want to delay the release of the next standard delivery task order to allow the CLPS providers to propose on the next delivery task order request.”

Clarke, in his November committee presentation, said the next non-VIPER task order, designated 19C, would be released in January, and unlike the two awarded last year, would go to the polar regions. Industry sources said NASA recently released a draft task order for that 19C mission.

The decision to proceed with a smaller mission now rather than VIPER is a relief to some CLPS companies. Although there are now 14 companies who are part of CLPS, with the addition of five in November, most are developing landers for smaller payloads. VIPER, weighing approximately 350 kilograms, can only be carried by landers currently under development by a few companies, such as Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin and SpaceX.

Some companies working on landers too small to carry VIPER worried that it might push back task orders for smaller missions by consuming a large fraction of the CLPS budget. The CLPS program received $170 million in the final fiscal year 2020 appropriations bill.

Another provision in that spending bill might affect other CLPS companies. The Senate version of the fiscal year 2020 commerce, justice and science spending bill included language that stated that the appropriations committee “expects NASA to provide funding under this program only for lunar landers and rovers majority-designed, developed, and built in the United States.” Hautaluoma said that requirement remains, although it was not explicitly included in the report accompanying the final bill.

It’s not clear how the provision will affect existing CLPS companies. NASA has required from the beginning of the program that landers companies offer in the program be assembled in the United States, but has not limited the ability of companies to partner with organizations outside the country.

Draper, one CLPS contractor, is working with Japanese lunar lander developer iSpace, whose design will be the basis for the Draper-led lander but built in the United States. Firefly Aerospace is licensing a lander design from Israel Aerospace Industries based on its Beresheet lander that attempted to land on the moon in April 2019. That lander, called Genesis, will be built in the United States.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...