After NASA sank more than four years and $100 million into a lunar rover just to cancel it earlier this year, officials quelled concerns from the scientific community by saying it would be scrapped for parts to use in the future.
But that may no longer be the case.
“A lot of good work was done on [the rover] and we want to see what it would take to complete those,” said Steven Clarke, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for exploration. But “there may be some good commercial ideas that do the same science that [the lunar rover] was going to do.”
The rover, known as Resource Prospector, was being built by NASA to find water on the moon. But then the space agency abruptly shuttered the project in April after more than four years of work, saying it would rely on commercial companies for future robotic missions to the lunar surface.
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Now, NASA is asking for bids from companies for those missions. The winners, announced in December and under contract for 10 years, will be tasked with launching instruments and scientific experiments to the moon.
In theory, those instruments would be Resource Prospector’s — such as its ice drill, a system to search for hydrogen below the lunar surface, and a tool to quantify water extracted from the moon. But later this month, NASA also is asking for bids for instruments and scientific experiments that would hitch a ride on those landers.
Resource Prospector’s instruments may never leave a NASA facility, let alone Earth’s atmosphere.
“It all depends on if [the instruments] are viable still, and if it’s still cost effective, as well,” Clarke said.
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NASA will choose those projects in February, at which point they will be matched up with the landers for a launch to the moon’s surface. Contract missions are expected to begin as soon as 2019, but NASA plans a first delivery to the surface no later than Dec. 31, 2021.
Resource Prospector was slated to fly in 2022 or 2023.
NASA also plans to develop projects to fly on the landers. But in this scenario, the space agency would act as a customer paying a company for services.
“Once we have [the companies] on contract, we can issue a task order to them and we negotiate a final price,” Clarke said. “We’re going to be buying rides to the moon.”
This allows NASA to focus its funds and expertise on further human exploration, he added.
“We’re looking to partner more [with commercial industry] instead of doing all the design in house,” Clarke said. “If the government can buy services versus create that same capability within the government … then NASA can put more resources toward advanced development of systems needed for habitation on the moon and human missions to Mars.”
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Increased commercialization of space has been a key talking point of President Donald Trump’s administration as he pushes for a return to the moon as a stepping stone for a mission to Mars.
For example, Trump has called for the agency to transition activity on the station to commercial companies, ending federal funding by 2025. This push follows one started in 2014 — prior to Trump’s presidency — in which SpaceX and Boeing will become the first commercial companies to send crews to the International Space Station, eliminating our dependence on Russia to ferry astronauts to and from the orbiting laboratory.
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The commercial crew program has faced numerous setbacks and delays, and many oppose Trump’s plan for the space station, saying companies likely won’t be ready to take on the fiscal responsibilities that come along with the station. Just in fiscal year 2017, NASA spent $1.45 billion on the space station — and that doesn’t count costs to transport astronauts and supplies there.
With this lunar lander strategy, Clarke said NASA is trying to “jump start the commercial industry to provide landing services on the moon.”
Alex Stuckey covers NASA and the environment for the Houston Chronicle. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter.com/alexdstuckey.