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NASA Plan Scales Back Lunar Robotic Program

NASA Adds Moon Crashing Probes to LRO Mission
In this artist's concept, the upper stage (right) and a "shepherding spacecraft" (left) approach the Moon before impacting at the south pole.
(Image: © NASA/John Frassanito and Associates.)

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

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

"NASA hasrecommended that APL's lunar lander contract be allowed toexpire at the end of March and NASA did informally notify APL of that fact onMonday," NASA spokeswoman Beth Dickey said Thursday. "This notification was nota surprise to APL. NASA specifically structured the contract to expire at theend of March."

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

"Theserecommendations are the result of an overall budget strategy being adopted bythe Exploration Systems Mission Directorate in an effort to meet top priorityprogram needs and to keep development of the next generation of U.S. humanspace vehicles on track," Dickey said.

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

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

"Near termfunding is not going to be available for planning future lunar roboticprograms," Dickey said. "Those are going to be deferred until such a time asconstellation requirements dictate a need for additional data beyond what willbe provide by LRO and [the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite]."

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