Astrobotic CEO John Thornton speaks at a Capitol Hill event September 13 alongside a full-scale model of his company’s Peregrine luner lander. (credit: J. Foust)
It was a bit like déjà vu.
In July, Moon Express unveiled a full-scale mockup of its MX-1E lunar lander in a Capitol Hill hearing room. The lander, the company’s entry in the Google Lunar X PRIZE competition, is intended to be the first in a series of landers carrying ever-larger payloads to the lunar surface (see “The Moon is a harsh milestone”, The Space Review, July 24, 2017).
Two months later, it as Astrobotic’s turn. In an event in the very same room last week, it placed a full-scale model of its Peregrine lander in almost the exact same spot as where the MX-1E stood in July. The Pittsburgh-based company, which dropped out of the Google Lunar X PRIZE last year, wanted to show off to an audience that included several members of Congress and their staffs, among others, that the company was serious about its private lunar missions.
“As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing in 2019, it is imperative that we show the world that America continues to lead in space and can once again lead on the surface of the Moon,” said John Thornton, CEO of Astrobotic, in comments at the event, standing between the Peregrine and a scale model of an Atlas V rocket. In July, Astrobotic announced an agreement with United Launch Alliance to launch the first Peregrine as a secondary payload on an Atlas in 2019.
“We’re very much looking to launching in Florida in 2019,” he said. “A great time to reinvigorate America’s return to the Moon, a new dawn, a new era of bringing commercial access to the Moon and making the Moon accessible to the whole world.”
A week earlier, Thornton was just down the hall, one of several witnesses at a hearing by the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee on private sector lunar exploration. “Astrobotic is leading the world in lunar sales and market development,” he said, with 11 deals signed to date with other companies and organizations, and a sales pipeline that includes 115 prospective customers.
Also at the same hearing was Bob Richards, CEO and founder of Moon Express. That first MX-1E mission—now scheduled for launch early next year, thanks to a recent tweak in the GLXP rules that allows launches after the end of this year provided the teams complete their missions by the end of March 2018—will carry a “diverse manifest of scientific and commercial payloads to the lunar surface,” he said. That mission is fully booked, with additional missions planned at the rate of one a year.
Both Astrobotic and Moon Express would like to add NASA to their roster of customers. At the hearing, Jason Crusan, director of advanced exploration systems at NASA, said that the agency was preparing a solicitation for just that: services to transport payloads to the lunar surface.
“What we are now looking at doing is actually buying landed delivery services in the next fiscal year, of actually buying the first ability to land small payloads,” he said. “We’re preparing for the solicitation as we speak.”
That solicitation comes after NASA issued a request for information (RFI) in May, seeking details on companies that can offer such services. It also issued an RFI last year seeking information on instruments that were seeking a ride to the Moon and could help fill NASA’s “strategic knowledge gaps” for human exploration. Crusan’s statements suggest there are instruments looking for rides, and NASA feels companies like Astrobotic and Moon Express will be ready in the next couple of years to transport them to the lunar surface.
A third company at the same hearing had bigger ambitions. Earlier this year Blue Origin announced its lunar lander concept, called—what else—Blue Moon. While Astrobotic and Moon Express are focused on carrying a few dozen to a few hundred kilograms to the lunar surface, Blue Moon could carry five tons or more of cargo.
Brett Alexander, director of business development and strategy at Blue Origin, suggested at the hearing that Blue Moon could be developed through a public-private partnership. While the company is making what he called “significant investments” in the system, he saw an opportunity for something along the lines of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program that developed cargo transportation systems for the International Space Station.
“As part of a public-private partnership with NASA, we are willing to invest further in developing this capability,” he said. “We invite NASA to partner with Blue Origin using innovative contracting mechanisms that require private sector investment and cost-sharing.”
Such capabilities, though, only make sense for NASA to develop if it plans to have a significant role on the Moon in the future—something that is largely overlooked in NASA’s “Journey to Mars” plans developed in recent years. A new administration, and a new NASA administrator, could change that.
Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), nominated to become NASA administrator earlier this month, has in the past talked about the importance of going back to the Moon. At a meeting of the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group in Maryland in November, days before the election, he made his case for a return that would include roles for private companies, particularly to help access water ice at the lunar poles that could become a key resource.
“From the discovery of water ice on the Moon until this day, the American objective should have been a permanent outpost of rovers and machines at the poles with occasional manned missions for science and maintenance,” he said. However, whether that will become the objective for American space policy, supported by NASA programs, remains to be seen as the Trump Administration develops a space policy, likely involving the reconstituted National Space Council.
Members of the subcommittee at the hearing (Bridenstine, who is a member, did not attend as he keeps a low public profile during the confirmation process) expressed support in general for private sector lunar exploration, but not without some questions and concerns.
“There’s no guarantee that the private sector will be successful. To the contrary, there will certainly be failures,” said Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), chairman of the space subcommittee, in his opening statement. “But the failures and successes should be determined by the free market. For this same reason, the private sector should not be artificially subsidized by the government. We should not leave our nation’s space exploration future purely to the whims of market uncertainties, and we should not bet our nation’s future in space on any one company.”
Other members were concerned that private exploitation of lunar resources could run roughshod on scientific research, keeping scientists from studying those ice deposits before they’re turned into propellant. “As we look at this pristine laboratory, we want to make sure that we are balancing the research needs,” said Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.), ranking member of the subcommittee. He invoked Star Trek’s Prime Directive, calling on those missions not to introduce “other organisms or anything else that may actually disrupt our science.”
Some, though, believe those resources will be compelling, whether it be to businesses of governments. “Water is the oil of space,” said George Sowers, a professor in the new space resources program at the Colorado School of Mines and a former ULA executive, at the House hearing. “Water on the Moon is an immensely valuable resource. Strategically, we should view the poles of the Moon as the next Persian Gulf.”
Astrobotic is ready to support those or other lunar efforts, whatever shape they take and whatever role NASA plans in lunar surface operations. Thornton, in his comments at the company’s reception, saw ways his company’s landers could support missions involving NASA’s proposed Deep Space Gateway in cislunar space, with astronauts there teleoperating rovers or other equipment delivered to the surface on Astrobotic’s landers.
“Potentially someday, if we can harvest the resources at the poles of the Moon, we can turn the Deep Space Gateway into a gas station that can become a stepping stone to deep space destinations,” he said. “That can power the next generation of settlement and exploration deeper and deeper into space.”