Lunar Trailblazer
NASA's Lunar Trailblazer spacecraft will be completed in October 2022, but its launch as a rideshare payload is not scheduled until at least February 2025. Credit: Lockheed Martin Space

WASHINGTON — NASA will continue a lunar smallsat mission for launch in mid-2023 despite exceeding its cost cap by 30%.

NASA said Nov. 9 that the agency decided after a review to continue work on the Lunar Trailblazer mission, a small spacecraft that will orbit the moon to map the abundance of water ice deposits. The spacecraft will launch in the middle of 2023 as a secondary payload on the Falcon 9 launch of the IM-2 lunar lander by Intuitive Machines.

NASA announced in August that the mission would undergo a continuation/termination review because of overruns by the spacecraft subcontractor, Lockheed Martin. “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,” Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division, said at a conference in August.

In the statement, NASA said that while the mission has a higher degree of risk tolerance than larger missions, Lockheed “found that mission success required additional engineering and design efforts that exceeded the original estimate and resulted in an overrun.”

The Lunar Trailblazer team replanned the work remaining on the mission, resulting in a cost increase of $8 million. “The mission will also implement changes to reduce programmatic risks and seek out more operational efficiencies going forward,” the agency stated.

NASA says the mission has a revised overall cost estimate of $72 million, a figure it says “includes previously agreed-to changes to the mission’s implementation, including spacecraft vendor, launch provider and launch date, among others.” NASA had not previously disclosed the magnitude of cost increases with the program.

Lunar Trailblazer had gone through several changes since its selection in 2019. That includes switching spacecraft contractors from Ball Aerospace to Lockheed Martin because of “design and cost challenges” as well as changing rideshare launch opportunities from the Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe (IMAP) mission, which is not launching until 2025, to IM-2.

The mission is one of three NASA selected in 2019 for its Small Innovative Missions for Planetary Exploration (SIMPLEx) program, along with the Janus asteroid mission and Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers (EscaPADE) Mars mission. Each mission was supposed to fit within a $55 million cost cap. Lunar Trailblazer, with its new $72 million cost, is now more than 30% over that cap.

Both EscaPADE and Janus have encountered problems in their development, some beyond their control. The two missions were originally slated to fly as secondary payloads on the launch of the Psyche asteroid mission. Changes in the Psyche mission trajectory caused NASA to remove EscaPADE from the launch and delay its development. EscaPADE revised the design of its mission using spacecraft buses from Rocket Lab and is slated for launch in 2024, although NASA has not disclosed launch plans for the mission.

Janus missed its launch window when NASA delayed the Psyche launch because of software development problems. While Psyche has since been rescheduled for launch in October 2023, NASA said Oct. 28 it “continues to assess options” for Janus.

The planetary science decadal survey, published in April, endorsed the SIMPLEx program but recommended increasing the cost cap for future missions from $55 million to $80 million. NASA, in its initial response to the decadal, said it was studying the issue, noting the recommendation “mirrors a debate that NASA has been having internally for quite some time.”

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...