Apollo lunar rover
NASA will request information from industry in the near future for an unpressurized rover that will provide Artemis astronauts the same mobility as the lunar rovers on the final Apollo missions. Credit: NASA

HOUSTON — NASA plans to issue a call for ideas for a lunar rover that could be used by future crewed missions to the moon and, like many other elements of the Artemis program, be developed in a partnership with industry.

Speaking at the SpaceCom Expo here Nov. 20, Tom Cremins, NASA associate administrator for strategy and plans, said the agency will soon release a request for information for an unpressurized lunar rover for use by astronauts on Artemis lunar landing missions.

“We want that [rover] there when the first crews arrive and then be there subsequently to be able to be used potentially autonomously from the Gateway, to conduct operations and to add to the science objectives,” he said.

That RFI, which he said would be released “in the coming weeks,” would propose to eventually develop the rover through a public-private partnership. The work will be led by the Johnson Space Center.

Mobility has long been considered a key element for any exploration of the lunar surface, either robotic or human. NASA confirmed plans in October to develop a separate robotic rover, called Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER), that would launch to the moon on a commercial lander in 2022 to investigate potential water ice deposits in craters at the south pole of the moon. Ben Bussey, senior exploration scientist for NASA’s Lunar Discovery and Exploration Program, said in another panel at the conference that the agency will follow up VIPER with additional robotic rovers at a cadence of approximately one every two years.

Developing the rover as a partnership with industry would follow the model of many other elements of NASA’s overall Artemis program, including the landers that will carry astronauts to the lunar surface. The agency is currently evaluating proposals submitted earlier this month for its Human Landing Systems program that would use a more commercial approach to the development of landers and eventual procurement of landing services. Cremins declined to comment on the specifics of that program, including how many proposals the agency received, citing an ongoing procurement blackout.

Even as the agency is focused on achieving the goal established by the administration in March of landing humans on the moon by 2024, Cremins said NASA is looking ahead to concepts for lunar activities beyond 2024, which he said will offer more opportunities for both commercial and international partners.

Japan, he noted, is interested in contributing a larger pressurized lunar rover for later missions that could enable longer expeditions from the landing site. There’s also planning for what he termed a “cabin on the frontier,” or a habitat that could support crews for long-duration stays.

Another aspect of those post-2024 plans is expanding the capabilities and roles of the lunar Gateway. “What we’re planning to do with Gateway is to build off that early capability with international partners and with commercial partners,” he said. “As we get past 2024, we’ll involve Gateway with those elements on the lunar surface.”

Cremins added that NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has likened the Gateway to a smartphone, “and we’re going to build a lot of apps off that.”

He noted that there’s been many past efforts to return to humans to the moon, and recalled his participation in efforts like the Synthesis Group study in the early 1990s and the Vision for Space Exploration during the administration of President George W. Bush. “This feels more real, and in fact is more real,” he said of Artemis. “It’s an exciting time not just for the country, but for this community.”

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...