Op-ed | Taking stock of NASA Commercial Lunar Payload Services progress


It was nearly a year ago that Astrobotic received the call that we had been selected to deliver the first collection of payloads to the moon from the NASA Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. It was both thrilling and humbling to be tapped to lead America back to the moon, and we have been hard at work to deliver for our customers and our nation. Since that phone call, we have grown our team to 72 employees, acquired a new lunar logistics headquarters, cut metal for our structural test model, and coordinated engine hot fires for our lander propulsion system.

NASA selected three commercial lunar landing service providers in May 2019 to deliver science and technology payloads to the moon. One of those three, Orbit Beyond, dropped out of the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program two months later. Credit: NASA artist concept

A lot has happened in under a year, including now dealing with the difficult circumstances imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. While we continue to strictly follow federal, state and local public health guidelines — including implementing social distancing and sanitation regimens designed to keep our employees healthy and safe — we are still making progress toward our first launch next year.

With the countdown on, it is a good time to reflect on the progress made by the CLPS program and think about what is to come in the near future.

First, we should recognize how quickly CLPS has helped recharge American leadership in space. Since 2018, there have been seven lunar missions launched around the world, and none of them were carrying the American flag. If current CLPS procurement schedules hold, and all signs look like they will, five U.S. missions to the moon will be on the books by year end. Those familiar with typical government procurements will recognize that is heroic work on the part of NASA to match the speed of the private sector. It is also clear that the lunar surface is about to become a hub of significant activity.

So what are the implications of so many lunar missions imminently on the horizon?

First, science is about to experience a boom. This was a program founded by NASA’s Science Mission Directorate and designed to change the equation of how science gets done on the moon.

For too long, planetary missions have been a point solution for one set of investigations with little to no follow up thereafter. CLPS is going to alter this dynamic significantly. Instead of waiting decades to get back to the lunar surface, American science investigators will now have instruments on the moon at least twice a year.

Astrobotic of Pittsburgh has proposed to fly as many as 14 payloads to a large crater on the near side of the moon. Credit: Astrobotic

Investigations of our underexplored, resource-rich moon could have profound implications for our knowledge of the solar system, and our understanding of planetary processes within our Earth-moon system. Water ice, lava tubes, magnetic anomalies, and the lunar frontiers unbeknown to our Apollo program forebears will now be revealed.

Each CLPS mission will launch a thousand new scientific questions and spur American scientific leadership into the 2020s. Decadal-science-level missions may not be on a CLPS manifest next year, but with enough experience and demonstrated results over time, those flights could be on the horizon for a fraction of their historic cost.

CLPS missions are also poised to become a hotbed of private innovation. Our first mission will feature a technology demonstration of our Terrain Relative Navigation sensor that will enable 100-meter landing precision in a GPS-denied environment. Our planetary mobility department is testing new rover techniques that will push the envelope on what kinds of science can be done on a low-cost rover. Our non-NASA customers are similarly testing new techniques for power, communication, and robotics with their payloads on the lunar surface. All of these developments will advance national capability, and many are originating in the private sector.

Intuitive Machines of Houston has proposed to fly as many as five payloads to a scientifically intriguing dark spot on the moon. Credit: Intuitive Machines

Last but not least, these missions are showing promise in revitalizing the U.S. space industrial base. In our case, we are a young company with tight deadlines and a commitment to keep costs low. To that end, we have been heartened by the new businesses with skilled and capable workers who have risen to the challenge of getting America back to the moon with a shared sense of urgency, and in a commercially competitive environment. For instance, we recently brought on a new supplier for our fuel tanks to speed up delivery times and reduce costs. Such suppliers have capable and inventive workforces from around the country, and they represent the best of a reemerging U.S. space industrial base.

When you have been bending metal and writing code for a moon mission set to launch next year, it can be easy to miss the bigger picture. But the trains are about to leave the station, and it is time to plan for a new era of science and exploration on the moon thanks to the vision being enacted by NASA CLPS. Our first mission may mark the beginning of this new era, but it is becoming increasingly clear that an entire ecosystem of businesses, universities, and researchers will define the upcoming decade of progress on the moon.

John Thornton is chief executive officer of Astrobotic.

This article originally appeared in the April 13, 2020 issue of SpaceNews magazine.