NASA is backing some risky missions to the moon — it’s time

Zoom / This illustration shows a concept for a commercial lunar lander from Astrobotic Technology.

NASA

For more than three years, NASA has focused intensely on the Artemis Moon Program. This landmark international effort, led by the US Space Agency at a cost of approximately $7.5 billion annually, seeks to return humans to the lunar surface in mid-2020 and establish a sustainable presence in deep space.

But in recent years, NASA has been funding a second, smaller lunar program, just three percent of the cost of Artemis. This is the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, which seeks to use private companies to send small and medium-sized lander vehicles to the lunar surface primarily for scientific missions. Its budget is about 250 million dollars a year.

This program, known as CLPS, is showing some promising signs and will beat Artemis to the moon by at least two years. Moreover, it represents a bold new effort by NASA’s Department of Science, which seeks to take advantage of the emerging commercial space sector to radically increase scientific and exploration capabilities. If successful, the CLPS exploration model could extend to Mars and beyond.

But will you succeed? We’re about to find out.

CLPS origin

Like the Artemis program, the origin of CLPS can be traced back to the middle of the Trump administration, when White House officials sought to refocus NASA’s exploration programs on the Moon in 2018 after a long period of heavy focus on Mars. This shift resonated with the Associate Administrator in charge of NASA Science Programs, Thomas Zurbuchen, who took office in late 2016.

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Since the end of the Apollo program in the 1970s, NASA has sent a handful of orbiters to the moon but hasn’t landed easily there in more than four decades. Meanwhile, the space agency has landed six times on Mars and explored the rest of the solar system.

“I felt for a long time that we weren’t focused enough on the moon,” Zurbuchen said in an interview with Ars. “It seemed strange that every celestial body in the solar system was interesting except for the one in the sky every night.”

Other scientists are beginning to get more involved in lunar research, particularly with NASA’s interest in the possibility of harvesting water ice at the lunar poles. The commercial space industry, spurred in part by Google Lunar XPrize, has begun work on innovative landing concepts. And there was another data point; NASA’s successful program to get commercial companies to deliver food and supplies to the International Space Station is starting to work well.

Zurbuchen wondered if this public and private model could be expanded to include scientific expeditions. In other words, were commercial companies up to the task of building small landers, hiring private launch companies, and delivering experiments to NASA and other customers on the moon?

Working with key allies within NASA, including David Shore of the Planetary Science Division and Stephen Clark, associate deputy administrator, Zurbuchen founded the CLPS program. After selecting a group of dozens of eligible US companies to bid, NASA began awarding competitive contracts worth between $80 million and $100 million in May 2019 for lunar delivery missions. These costs were much lower than what NASA would have paid as part of the traditional procurement process.

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Not all of these landing vehicles will be successful, at least at first. It represents a huge technological leap for a private company to build a spacecraft and lander and operate the craft approximately 400,000 kilometers from Earth. Zurbuchen used the phrase “shots on target” to describe this risk, consistently telling policy makers that there is a 50-50 chance of success on early CLPS missions.

“You have to buy the risk,” Zurbuchen said. “If the chance of success needs to be 80 percent, I need to put a program in place to ensure safety and mission on it. And I don’t want to do that because then I squeeze some of the entrepreneurial energy. I really, really believe that the entrepreneurial ecosystem is one of the core strengths of states United. We are second to none. And if we don’t use that as part of our leadership model, we are missing out on a lot.”

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