NASA Seeks Small Lunar Lander Payload Ideas, Moon Express Will Help with Funding

NASA Seeks Small Lunar Lander Payload Ideas, Moon Express Will Help with Funding

NASA issued a Request for Information (RFI) today soliciting concepts for small payloads to fly on commercial robotic missions that will land on the lunar surface in the 2017-2020 time frame.  One of the companies offering transportation for such payloads, Moon Express, in turn said it would provide $500,000 for each of three payloads selected by NASA that would fly on its first three missions, a total of $1.5 million.

The announcements were made in conjunction with the first day of the annual Lunar
Exploration Analysis Group (LEAG) meeting, which provides input to
NASA.  The meeting is being held at the Universities Space Research
Association (USRA) headquarters in Columbia, MD today through November 3. 

The NASA RFI was issued by the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate  (HEOMD), not the Science Mission Directorate that traditionally supports robotic exploration of the solar system. This is not the first time that NASA’s human exploration office has funded robotic lunar missions, but comes at a time when NASA is not planning to send humans to the surface of the Moon only to orbits around it (cislunar space).  President Obama cancelled U.S. plans to return humans to the lunar surface in 2010 when he terminated the Constellation program.  NASA human spaceflight officials have indicated in recent years, however, that they agree there is value in learning how to live and work on the lunar surface and utilize lunar resources as part of the longer term goal of sending humans to Mars. They hope international and/or commercial partners will undertake that part of the journey.

International and commercial partners are indeed discussing it.  The European Space Agency (ESA) is advocating for a “lunar village” or “moon village.”  ESA Director General Jan Woerner and his colleagues, including Bernard Foing who spoke at the LEAG meeting this morning, stress that they do not mean a collection of houses and businesses like a village on Earth, but a group of countries and other entities working together on the lunar surface to answer scientific questions and solve problems to enable future human exploration of the solar system. 

At the same time, the private sector is taking steps towards commercial missions to the Moon.  Moon Express is the furthest along of the teams competing in the $40 million Google Lunar X-Prize to land a spacecraft on the Moon, travel at least 500 meters, and send images and data back to Earth.  Sixteen teams remain in the competition, but three are widely considered the primary contenders: two U.S. companies, Moon Express and Astrobotic, plus Israel’s SpaceIL.  Moon Express is the only one with a verified launch contract and permission from the U.S. government to conduct the mission.  Both U.S. companies stress that winning the X-prize is only one motivation and they have business plans for activities separate from that competition.  Other companies also have lunar plans, some of which will be discussed at tomorrow’s LEAG meeting.

As noted, although NASA itself is not planning to send humans to the surface of the Moon, working with LEAG it identified Strategic Knowledge Gaps (SKGs) for lunar human exploration in three areas: understanding the lunar resource potential, understanding the lunar environment and its affect on human life, and understanding how to work and live on the lunar surface.  The RFI released today is aimed at addressing those and other NASA strategic objectives “as cost-effectively as possible” by procuring “payloads and related commercial payload delivery services to the Moon.”  The RFI does not guarantee that any payloads will be chosen — everything is subject to the availability of funds — but solicits ideas from U.S. industry, universities, non-profit organizations, NASA centers including the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and other U.S. government agencies.  Responses are due by December 9, 2016.

For its part, Moon Express issued a press release promising up to $500,000 for each of three NASA-selected payloads that would fly on its first three “commercial lunar missions of opportunity” beginning next year.   Moon Express calls it the Lunar Scout program.   Moon Express founder and CEO Bob Richards said the company’s “goal is to collapse the cost of access to the Moon and to enable a new era of lunar exploration and development for students, scientists, and commercial interests.”   Moon Express is already a partner in NASA’s Lunar CATALYST program designed to spur development of commercial cargo transportation capabilities to the Moon.  Richards said Lunar Scout is intended to be a pathfinder for new public private partnerships beyond Lunar CATALYST.

Moon Express is building small lunar landers that will be launched by Rocket Lab USA’s Electron rockets from New Zealand.  It has a contract for three Electron launches beginning in 2017.  Electron has not yet achieved its first launch although construction of the launch site on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula was completed in September 2016.  The deadline for launching a mission to win the Google Lunar X-Prize is the end of 2017.


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