NASA Wants to Move Fast, Sustainably, on Lunar Exploration

NASA Wants to Move Fast, Sustainably, on Lunar Exploration

Top NASA officials stressed today that the agency wants to move fast in implementing the Trump Administration’s Space Policy Directive-1 (SPD-1) to return astronauts to the lunar surface, but also sustainably with commercial and international partners.  A first step is the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative to put instruments on commercial robotic lunar landers, announced last year.  NASA says it will have payloads ready to go as soon as the commercial sector is ready, ideally by the end of this year.  NASA is now reaching out to the commercial sector for ideas on landers that can take astronauts to and from the surface.

NASA held a media roundtable and an industry day today focused on the human lunar lander effort, but most of the news was about CLPS.

Instead of building its own small robotic lunar landers/rovers, NASA wants to purchase services from commercial companies that plan to build and launch them for a variety of customers.  NASA will provide only payloads — science instruments or technology demonstrations, for example.

CLPS is managed by NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD).   NASA chose nine companies in November for Indefinite Delivery Indefinite Quantity (IDIQ) fixed price contracts.  The nine are eligible to compete for a combined total of $2.6 billion in task orders over the next 10 years.  Thomas Zurbuchen, the head of SMD, said NASA will issue the first task order under the CLPS contract next month.

Fast is the operative word.  Zurbuchen said NASA will provide financial incentives to companies that can provide services quickly.  He reiterated that NASA does not expect every launch or landing to be successful, it is looking to take “shots on goal.”  His “wish” is for the first flight to take place this calendar year, but his message was that the companies, not NASA, will set the schedule.  When they are ready, NASA will be ready with payloads.

Along those lines, he revealed that next week he will announce 12 internally-developed payloads that are candidates for CLPS services.  A separate announcement will be made later for external (non-NASA) payloads.  “If we have a ride in late 2019, we have instruments to fly.”

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine cautioned that does not mean a flight will actually take place in 2019.  One “could” materialize, but that is not to say it “will.”  He was even more cautious in a recent interview with OZY, saying NASA was targeting the first commercial lunar surface landing mission “by the end of 2020.”

Bridenstine and Bill Gerstenmaier, head of NASA’s human spaceflight program, focused primarily on NASA’s solicitation of ideas from the commercial sector for human lunar landers. The landers would come and go from the Gateway NASA is planning to build in lunar orbit.  Harkening back to the Apollo program where the Apollo Command Module remained in lunar orbit while the Lunar Excursion Module took two astronauts down to and back from the surface, Bridenstine refers to the Gateway as a “reusable Command Module.”  Many simply call it a small space station, but NASA plans to use it as the transfer point for astronauts journeying from Earth to lunar surface.  The human lunar landers would be based at the Gateway.

NASA issued a request for proposals on February 7 under its NextSTEP-2 Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) that are due March 25 for 6-month industry studies of descent vehicles, transfer vehicles, and refueling vehicles.  Gerstenmaier said he plans to make selections in May and have multiple studies under contract by July. NASA laid out its plan — or “architecture” — in the BAA, but Bridenstine and Gerstenmaier repeatedly stressed that they are open to other concepts.  “If you have a completely different idea” than what is in the BAA, “we’ll listen,” Gerstenmaier emphasized.  The keys are to be fast and sustainable.

NASA’s current plan calls for an uncrewed demonstration test of a descent vehicle in 2024, a second demonstration test in 2026 including the ascent vehicle (which is not part of this BAA), and a human return to the lunar surface on a third demonstration flight in 2028.  These three slides from the BAA illustrate the plan.

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