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What’s behind NASA’s Commercial Lunar Hits and Misses?

It has been a rough-and-tumble start for hurling hardware and science experiments to the moon under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative, dubbed CLPS.

Under CLPS, American vendors have been contracted to assist the space agency in revitalizing the nation’s lunar exploration capabilities, all in preparation for a crewed lunar landing at the lunar south pole slated to take place no earlier than September 2026 as part of NASA’s sprawling Artemis human spaceflight program.

Commercial deliveries of scientific equipment and putting technical demonstrations through their paces is what CLPS is all about; the public-private partnership could bestow as much as $2.6 billion in competitive contracts through 2028.


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All that NASA cash, the agency relates, is meant to be a cost-saving, pennies-on-the-dollar investment with outsized rewards that will help to lay the foundation for sustained human presence on the moon while also kickstarting the creation of a lunar economy. And, if successful on the moon’s proving grounds, NASA and its commercial partners alike could then raise their sights higher to contemplate similar collaborations on future human voyages to Mars.

That’s the off-and-running vision—but there are some early speed bumps.

Emotional Roller Coaster

The first CLPS outing to the moon was doomed shortly after a flawless liftoff on January 8 aboard a United Launch Alliance Vulcan Centaur rocket. Built by the private space firm Astrobotic Technology, the Peregrine Mission One spacecraft suffered a propulsion system failure that negated an intended gentle touchdown at the Gruithuisen Domes region of the moon.

Peregrine was loaded with 20 payloads from seven nations that included NASA-supplied experiments and those of 16 commercial customers.

The troubled spacecraft wound up being finessed via improvised nudging from the company’s ground control team into a controlled, self-destructing reentry into Earth’s atmosphere; it plunged into remote South Pacific waters some 10 days after launching.

“It was an emotional roller coaster,” says John Thornton, chief executive officer of Astrobotic, based in Pittsburgh, Pa. “We went from the highest high after launch—then a few hours later we were on the lowest low.”

NASA had funded the mission to the tune of $108 million—a figure, Thornton notes, that also included success fees, which made up 10 percent of that total. Given the lander’s outcome, the company will not receive that cash, he says. Even so, Thornton remains upbeat and is convinced that the CLPS approach works and is achievable.

“We feel that there’s business left to be done here,” Thornton says. “We’re doing these missions at a fraction of what they would normally cost. The challenge that the commercial players are faced with is trying to find that sweet spot [and] getting that balance by identifying the appropriate places to take the risk to reduce cost.”

Peregrine Postmortem

A postmortem failure review board for Peregrine is now at work. It is comprised of Astrobotic and NASA personnel and chaired by independent reviewers “to make sure that it’s an unbiased result at the end of the day and we get the truth,” Thornton says.

This look-see into what went wrong will move quickly, Thornton says, in comparison with more standard and slow-paced NASA reviews of space mishaps. The review’s findings are urgently needed, he adds, to help guide Peregrine’s CLPS follow-up, Astrobotic’s Griffin lunar lander.

The Griffin lander has five times the carrying capacity of Peregrine—much of which will be used to haul NASA’s water-seeking Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER. VIPER’s snooping will be targeted near the western edge of the Nobile Crater at the moon’s south pole, with a launch officially booked to occur by year’s end. But the timing of that plan is likely to change.

“I’d say the probability is high that we’ll have a schedule challenge,” Thornton says. “We’ve got to get it right on this next one.”

Coming in Hot

Developed and operated by Intuitive Machines of Houston, Tex., the next CLPS-funded mission after Peregrine was IM-1, the flight of the Odysseus lunar lander, which rocketed from Earth on February 15. On February 22 this $118-million spacecraft became the first U.S.-built probe to make a lunar touchdown since the crewed landing of Apollo 17 more than half a century earlier.

Flag-waving aside, Odysseus can’t boast a glitch-free descent to its intended destination, the crater Malapert A, near the moon’s south pole.

Minor issues emerged from the spotty performance of the spacecraft’s state-of-the-art propulsion system, which used a combination of cryogenic liquid oxygen and liquid methane. Bigger problems came from a glitch in Odysseus’ laser range finders—a crucial kit for the home stretch of lunar approach that did not function because of a prelaunch oversight by Intuitive Machines. That mistake came back to bite them on lunar landing day and sent mission controllers scrambling for alternative ways to ensure a safe, spot-on touchdown. Thankfully the company’s quick-thinking personnel managed to repurpose other onboard navigation instrumentation to get the descending Odysseus within a mile of its targeted landing area.

But the six-legged lander came in too hot. It arrived with a higher downward and horizontal speed than planned, hitting harder and skidding across sloping terrain, snapping off some of its landing gear in the process. Meanwhile the Odysseus main engine was still firing—and when it ceased, the lander tipped over to a roughly 30-degree angle off the surface. That cockeyed orientation reduced the sunlight reaching the spacecraft’s solar panels and also compromised several antennae, reducing transmissions to and from the lunar surface to a trickle.

Still, Odysseus achieved its high-level mission objectives: surviving its too-hard “soft” touchdown relatively intact, as well as returning scientific data to customers, contends Steve Altemus, chief executive officer of Intuitive Machines. “Both of those objectives were met, so in our mind this is an unqualified success.”

Scrappy Little Dude

In a postlanding IM-1 status report, Sue Lederer, CLPS project scientist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, said the bottom line was that each of the payloads “met some level of their objectives” and labeled Odysseus “a scrappy little dude.”

NASA’s Stereo Cameras for Lunar Plume Surface Studies (SCALPSS), one of the six NASA payloads, was not able to reach its full science threshold, however. SCALPSS was specifically focused on how the Odysseus rocket motor plume would scour the dusty lunar surface upon its descent, flinging debris that could potentially damage any nearby hardware. A better understanding of how rocket plumes raise and transport dust across the moon could also prove crucial to ensuring Artemis crews safely stick their future landings there.

Because of the failure of the lander’s laser range finders, the associated altitude data meant to trigger SCALPSS never arrived, so the experiment couldn’t obtain any imagery during and after Odysseus’ descent.

“Had SCALPSS operated during landing, the processed results could have been visualized as a 3D shape of the moon’s surface,” says Michelle Munk, acting chief architect for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate and the SCALPSS principal investigator.

The Intuitive Machines cameras on Odysseus weren’t set up to collect the same kind of imagery, Munk says, but nonetheless may contain useful clues to help offset the absence of detailed data from SCALPSS.

Munk and her colleagues should get another chance to study rocket-lofted moon dust later this year via the next CLPS flight opportunity, Firefly Aerospace’s Blue Ghost Mission 1.

Firefly Aerospace, based in Cedar Park, Tex., has CLPS task orders totaling nearly $230 million. Those dollars financially fuel the group’s Blue Ghost missions to the moon, slated for 2024 and 2026.

Blue Ghost Mission 1 is currently on tap to fly atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in the second half of 2024. The payloads on the 2026 Blue Ghost Mission 2 are headed for the far side of the moon, and may get there aboard Firefly’s in-development Beta launch vehicle. On the lunar far side, one payload in particular, dubbed Lunar Surface Electromagnetic Experiment-Night (LuSEE-Night), will test technologies for conducting transformative investigations in radio astronomy. With the moon’s bulk serving as shielding from the buzz and static of Earth-sourced interference, even a modest radio telescope should be able to detect faint signals from the primordial cosmos. If LuSEE-Night proves successful, however, “modest” may be the last word to describe future far-side radio telescopes, which could be built to staggering sizes to scrutinize the early universe in unprecedented detail.

Upcoming Moonshot

Firefly’s moonshot later this year will haul 10 NASA-sponsored payloads to Mare Crisium, a 556-kilometer-wide (345-mile-wide) flat-bottomed crater in the northern lunar hemisphere. Once there, experiments are to analyze the moon’s regolith, geophysical makeup and interactions between the solar wind and Earth’s magnetic field.

Bob Grimm, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute and principal investigator of a novel experiment flying on board Blue Ghost Mission 1, is excited for his shot at performing unique lunar science—but not without a touch of anxiety.

“The outcomes of both the Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines missions are worrisome,” Grimm says. Even so, “Firefly deserves to take their shot without preconceptions.” His payload, the Lunar Magnetotelluric Sounder (LMS), will use a magnetometer to probe as deep as 1,127 km (700 miles) into the moon’s subsurface, which will potentially reveal new details about our satellite’s internal structure.

In Grimm’s opinion, despite IM-1’s satisfactory outcome of avoiding catastrophe, it is a stretch that Intuitive Machines’ leadership has called the mission an “unqualified success.”

Regardless of labels, however, Ben Bussey, chief scientist at Intuitive Machines, says the company is firmly focused on ensuring that the lessons learned from IM-1 inform the outfit’s upcoming IM-2 moon lander mission. Slated to launch no earlier than the fourth quarter of this year, IM-2 is being dispatched to the ridgelike rim of the lunar south pole’s Shackleton Crater, a target also under scrutiny as a landing site for NASA’s Artemis III mission, which would be the first crewed return to the lunar surface since the Apollo era. “We have located several safe sites on the ridge that satisfy the goals of the IM-2 payloads,” Bussey says.

Artemis Aspirations

Exploring Shackleton is widely seen as central to any sustainable crewed lunar presence, whether via Artemis or another human spaceflight program, such as China’s, which is also targeting the crater. Peaks along the crater’s rim are almost always bathed in sunlight—perfect for energizing solar arrays—and also provide near constant line-of-sight telecommunications linkages with Earth, a must-have for any future long-term base camp.

But there’s more. Like many of its neighboring polar craters, Shackleton is home to permanently shadowed regions, or PSRs—sites not kissed by sunlight for billions of years.

Thought to be super chilly reservoirs of water ice, the volatile-rich regolith from PSRs could be harvested and processed into drinkable water—or, for that matter, into rocket fuel. But before such audacious feats can be attempted, mission planners must first get the “ground truth” by finding a way to safely and directly study or even sample a PSR’s frigid depths.

To that end, IM-2 is manifested to unleash Micro-Nova, a $41.6-million, NASA-funded small, deployable “hopper lander” to plunge in and out of PSRs.

“IM-2 definitely has the potential to provide key new data. Our hopper is carrying several instruments that will take the first surface measurements from inside a PSR,” Bussey says.

Failure Is an Option

Having a commercial capability demonstrated to successfully land on the moon will be game-changing, contends Clive Neal, a professor and a lunar exploration specialist at the University of Notre Dame.

“While the first attempt by an American commercial company to land on the moon failed, the very nature of these missions is that failure is an option,” Neal suggests. “But there are a number of questions that remain unanswered.”

Among them is how many failures CLPS can accumulate before NASA and its political taskmasters lose patience. Additionally, Neal continues, how are lessons learned from each mission shared amongst the CLPS vendors, if at all? Or does each company learn on its own? After all, this is commercial and competitive endeavor, he says.

The more recent IM-1 mission was notable, Neal says, given the “on-the-fly” adaptation the flight controllers had to do to get to the lunar surface and operate. “I do not see this mission as a failure but as a pathfinder that will inform the future of Intuitive Machines and the CLPS program.”

In the opinion of Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, the CLPS program is going well so far, notwithstanding the Astrobotic loss and the not-so-unqualified success of IM-1.

“Firsts are always difficult, and it takes experience to relearn flying to the moon,” Pace says. Almost as essential, he says, is organizational and cultural learning in which NASA and industry learn to work together in new ways.

“These missions are acquisition pilot programs as much as they are scientific and technology explorations,” Pace concludes.

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