NASA Plan Scales Back Lunar Robotic Program
In this artist's concept, the upper stage (right) and a "shepherding spacecraft" (left) approach the Moon before impacting at the south pole.
Credit: NASA/John Frassanito and Associates.

WASHINGTON -- NASA notified the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) this week that its contract to build a robotic lunar lander would be allowed to expire at the end of March and would not be renewed -- at least not anytime soon.

The U.S. space agency also intends to close the Lunar Precursor and Robotics Program Office it established at the Marshall Space Flight Center last year and move management responsibility for the 2008 Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and its piggy-back Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite to NASA Headquarters here.

"NASA has recommended that APL's lunar lander contract be allowed to expire at the end of March and NASA did informally notify APL of that fact on Monday," NASA spokeswoman Beth Dickey said Thursday. "This notification was not a surprise to APL. NASA specifically structured the contract to expire at the end of March."

Dickey said NASA's intention to let the APL contract expire and close down Marshall's lunar robotics office is reflected in the 2007 operating plan the agency was expected to submit to Congress by March 15. By law, Congress has 15 days to review that plan -- which details how NASA intends to spend the money it was given for 2007 -- and request changes.

"These recommendations are the result of an overall budget strategy being adopted by the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate in an effort to meet top priority program needs and to keep development of the next generation of U.S. human space vehicles on track," Dickey said.

The Laurel, Md.-based Applied Physics Laboratory was selected by NASA in September 2005 to work under the guidance of the Marshall Space Flight Center to design and build a robotic lander that could be launched to the Moon by 2011 to demonstrate advanced descent and landing techniques and determine whether the lunar poles harbor water ice. The mission, known at the time as Robotic Lunar Exploration Precursor 2, was given a target price tag of $400 million to $750 million.

NASA has been rethinking its robotic lunar exploration strategy over the last 18 months and recently concluded that it has no immediate need for any unmanned Moon missions beyond the heavily-instrumented Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) [image] currently in development for a late 2008 or early 2009 launch. LRO's rocket will carry a secondary payload dubbed the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite [image]. The combined cost of the two missions is just under $800 million.

"Near term funding is not going to be available for planning future lunar robotic programs," Dickey said. "Those are going to be deferred until such a time as constellation requirements dictate a need for additional data beyond what will be provide by LRO and [the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite]."