Astrobotic Wins NASA’s VIPER Lunar Delivery Contract

Astrobotic Wins NASA’s VIPER Lunar Delivery Contract

Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic has won a $199.5 million contract to deliver NASA’s VIPER lunar rover to the South Pole of the Moon in 2023.  The price includes launch from Earth through delivery on the Moon, but not the rover itself. 

The award is through NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, an innovative acquisition approach where NASA contracts with a commercial service provider to deliver payloads to the lunar surface.  NASA provides only the payloads and money. The contractor provides the launch vehicle, the lander, and integrates the payload(s) onto the lander under a fixed price contract.  The contractor is encouraged to find other customers as well.

Astrobotic already won a $79.5 million contract from NASA to deliver payloads next year using its small Peregrine lander.  Today’s award is for Astrobotic’s medium-class lander, Griffin, which can accommodate 500 kilograms of mass.

Astrobotic picked the United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur rocket for the Peregrine launch in 2021.  In fact, that will be the first flight of Vulcan, the successor to Atlas V.  Astrobotic CEO John Thornton said today the company will decide later this year on what rocket will launch VIPER.

NASA’s VIPER — Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover — rover will roll off of Astrobotic’s Griffin lander and search for water ice on the Moon to begin creating a global water resource map.  It is part of the Artemis program to return astronauts to the surface of the Moon by 2024 and initiate an era of sustainable lunar operations that includes resource extraction and utilization.  Water is needed to support human outposts and can be separated into hydrogen and oxygen for other uses.

NASA has successfully sent robotic rovers to Mars, but this will be its first on the Moon.  Two robotic rovers from the Soviet Union, Lunokhod 1 and 2, landed in 1970 and 1973.  China also has sent two: Yutu in 2013 and Yutu-2 in 2019.  The latter is currently operating on the far side of the Moon.

NASA has had rovers on the lunar surface, but operated by astronauts. The last three Apollo crews drove Lunar Roving Vehicles to make excursions further from their landing sites than previously possible.

The $199.5 million does not include VIPER.  NASA Planetary Science Division Director Lori Glaze said the mission is still in formulation and a cost commitment has not yet been made.

NASA and the lunar science community are quite excited about what VIPER will discover and NASA said today its findings will inform the decision on where the Artemis III crew lands.  That will be the mission that lands the “first woman and the next man” on the Moon in 2024 if current plans hold.

The CLPS program was founded in 2018 on the premise that the agency needs to move fast and therefore is willing to take a higher level of risk by relying on commercial service providers instead of building and launching landers itself.  Jim Bridenstine, NASA Administrator, and Thomas Zurbuchen, the head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, which manages the program, describe it as taking “shots on goal” where not all the companies will be successful and a 50-50 success rate is acceptable.  One of the nine companies, Orbit Beyond, already withdrew after being selected for one of the first task orders.

Asked today if that is still the case considering how much is riding on VIPER’s success, Zurbuchen acknowledged NASA is taking more risks, but is confident Astrobotic will deliver. Thornton added that they are working with some of the best partners in the world to ensure success.

The contract announced today is a task order under the overall CLPS contract. NASA selected nine CLPS providers in 2018 and five more in 2019.  Each company may bid on any of the task orders.  During a media teleconference today, NASA officials declined to say how many bid on this one, saying only it was a “healthy competition.”  Later, however, Zurbuchen tweeted that seven proposals were reviewed.

Separately, Astrobotic won a $5.6 million NASA contract last year to develop, with famed Carnegie Mellon Professor Red Whittaker, a very small (13 kilogram) autonomous lunar rover called MoonRanger.  It will be delivered to the lunar surface along with eight others on a CLPS mission supplied by Masten Space Systems in 2022.  MoonRanger will provide high fidelity 3D maps of the surface in polar regions and lunar pits.

NASA’s goal is two CLPS missions per year.  At the moment there are two in 2021 (Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines), one in 2022 (Masten), and one in 2023 (Astrobotic).


This article has been updated.

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