NASA pushes forward with commercial partnerships for moon mission


Two reports reveal negotiations between the agency and private companies, but doubts about viability remain. Andrew Masterson reports.


Scientist-astronaut Harrison Schmitt collects samples during the Apollo 17 mission in 1972.

Scientist-astronaut Harrison Schmitt collects samples during the Apollo 17 mission in 1972.

NASA

NASA is in negotiation with a small number of corporations regarding the provision of scientific instruments designed to be deployed on the moon, two new reports reveal.

However, the reports, both prepared by the US National Academy of Sciences Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Sciences, also note concerns that such instrumentation may not properly marry with NASA-designed lunar landers and rovers, leading to delays and cost overruns.

NASA’s renewed focus in moon research is a direct consequence Space Policy Directive-1, an order issued by President Donald Trump in December 2017. Replacing America’s longstanding National Space Policy, the new directive committed the US to “lead an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with commercial and international partners to enable human expansion across the solar system”.

The US, the order continued, “will lead the return of humans to the Moon for long-term exploration and utilisation”.

But the prospect of astronauts once again walking across the Sea of Tranquillity remains a long way off, according to the first report.

The authors state: “Before humans reach the lunar surface again, however, the exploration – for scientific gain, for resource prospecting, and for the sake of exploring – will be carried out by robotic missions.”

To this end, the 2019 NASA budget includes a modest (by space mission standards) $200 million to fund its new Lunar Discovery and Exploration Program. The funding and the program are additional to existing moon-centred missions, such as the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Early priorities, like the budget itself, appear low-risk. They include the deployment of CubeSats, and analysis of still-sealed moon dust samples collected during the Apollo missions.

The report acknowledges that Mr Trump’s directive has energised “the lunar science community”, which is now “actively engaged in planning how to leverage the new lunar initiative to advance lunar science goals”.

However, the authors conclude on a note of caution regarding “the synthesis of human exploration and science goals” because “the expected relationship between these two elements appears to be as yet undefined”.

The second report, which goes into more detail about longer-term prospects, highlights NASA’s developing ability to provide “on-ramps” for private companies. The authors note the agency’s brief begins with facilitating the delivery of ever-larger landers and rovers to the surface of the moon, and then assisting commercial interests to undertake “potentially more profitable activities ranging from delivery of personal artefacts to tourism and mining”.

The report also reveals that after initial expressions of interest from 30 companies received in 2018, NASA is now in negotiations with nine.

The authors conclude that private lunar missions “might be able to accommodate NASA science instrumentation valuable to lunar science”.

However, the report notes, that there are “many unknowns that have the potential to affect the viability of this commercially driven approach to science”.

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  1. https://www8.nationalacademies.org/pa/projectview.aspx?key=49864
  2. https://www.nap.edu/read/25373/chapter/2
  3. https://lunar.gsfc.nasa.gov/about.html
  4. https://www.nap.edu/catalog/25374/report-series-committee-on-astrobiology-and-planetary-science-review-of
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