NASA is supporting some seriously risky missions to the Moon – it’s time

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


For more than three years, NASA has been intensely focused on the Artemis Moon program. This high-profile international effort, led by the U.S. space agency at a cost of nearly $ 7.5 billion a year, seeks to bring humans back to the lunar surface in the mid-2020s and establish a sustainable presence in deep space.

But in recent years, NASA has funded another, much smaller lunar program for only 3 percent of the price of Artemis. This is the “Commercial Lunar Payload Services” program, which seeks to use private companies to send small and medium-sized landers to the Moon’s surface for primarily science-based missions. Its budget is about $ 250 million a year.

This program, known as CLPS, shows some promising signs and will turn the Artemis program into the Moon by at least a few years. In addition, it represents a courageous new effort from NASA’s Science division, which seeks to leverage the new commercial space sector to radically increase scientific and exploration capabilities. If successful, the CLPS exploration model could be extended to Mars and beyond.

But will it succeed? We’re figuring it out.

Origin of CLPS

Like the Artemis program, the origins of CLPS can be traced to the center of the Trump administration, where White House officials tried to refocus NASA’s exploration programs on the Moon in 2018 after a long period of intense focus on Mars. This shift resonated with the associate administrator in charge of NASA’s science programs, Thomas Zurbuchen, who took office at the end of 2016.

Since the end of the Apollo program in the 1970s, NASA had sent a handful of orbiters to the Moon, but had not made a soft landing there for more than four decades. Meanwhile, the space agency had landed half a dozen times on Mars and explored the rest of the solar system.

“I had felt for a while that we had not 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 what is in the sky every night.”

Other scientists also began to become very involved in lunar research, especially with NASA’s interest in the potential to harvest water ice at the Moon’s poles. The commercial space industry, partly spurred on by Google Lunar XPrize, had also started working on innovative lander concepts. And there was another data point; NASA’s successful program to get commercial companies to supply food and supplies to the International Space Station had begun to work well.

Zurbuchen wondered if this public-private model could be extended to scientific missions. In other words, were commercial companies ready for the task of building small landers, hiring private launch companies, and delivering experiments for NASA and other customers to the moon’s surface?

In collaboration with key allies within NASA, including David Schurr of the Planetary Science Division and Steven Clarke, a Deputy Associate Administrator, Zurbuchen established the CLPS program. After selecting a pool of a dozen U.S. companies eligible to bid, NASA began competitively awarding contracts worth between $ 80 million and $ 100 million in May 2019 to lunar delivery missions. These costs were far less than NASA would have paid as part of a traditional procurement process.

Not all of these landers will be successful, at least in the first place. It represents a huge technological leap for a private company to build a spacecraft and land and operate the spacecraft nearly 400,000 km from Earth. Zurbuchen used the term “shot on target” to characterize this risk and consistently told politicians there was a 50-50 chance of success for early CLPS missions.

“You have to buy in on the risk,” Zurbuchen said. “If the chance of success is to be 80 percent, I have to put a security and mission insurance program into it. And I do not want to do that, because then I’m squeezing some of the entrepreneurial energy. I just really believe that the entrepreneurial ecosystem is one of “US nuclear forces. We are second to none. And if we do not use it as part of our leadership paradigm, we will miss something.”