Companies Skeptical Commercial Lunar Landers Can Fly NASA Payloads This Year

Astrobotic Technology expects their Peregrine lunar lander to be mission-ready in early 2021.
Astrobotic, which is developing the Peregrine lunar lander, expects the vehicle to be ready for its first mission in early 2021, even as NASA seeks opportunities to fly payloads on commercial lunar landers this year. (Image credit: Astrobotic Technology)

 WASHINGTON — As NASA selects payloads it plans to fly on commercial lunar landers, companies developing those spacecraft are skeptical any landers will be ready to fly this year, as the agency desires.

NASA announced Feb. 21 that it has identified a dozen science and technology demonstration payloads from within the agency that will be eligible to fly on missions through the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. Those payloads include a range of scientific instruments, such as spectrometers and magnetometers, as well as demonstrations of solar cells and navigational beacons.

NASA selected payloads mature enough to be ready to fly on CLPS missions as soon as late this year. A separate call for payloads from outside the agency, formally known as Lunar Surface Instrument and Technology Payload (LSITP), is in progress, with proposals due to NASA Feb. 27 and a selection coming in the spring.

In November, NASA picked nine companies developing lunar landers to be part of CLPS. Those companies will be eligible to compete for task orders to fly those payloads, with the first such task order expected within a month.

"Once we have awarded the first CLPS mission task order later this spring, we will then select the specific payloads from the internal-NASA and LSITP calls to fly on that mission," Steve Clarke, deputy associate administrator for exploration in NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said in a statement about the payload selection.

In a briefing with reporters Feb. 14, Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, said the agency would like to fly the first CLPS mission before the end of this year, and would provide financial incentives for companies to be able to meet that goal. "If you can fly faster, we will incentivize that," he said. "We care about speed."

However, at a Washington Space Business Roundtable luncheon Feb. 21, several hours before NASA announced the payload selections, executives with two of the CLPS companies said their first missions won't be ready to launch until 2020 or 2021.

"We're really, at Astrobotic, trying to do this the right way, meaning that we're trying to be as technically rigorous as possible," said Dan Hendrickson, vice president of business development at Astrobotic. "We're trying to be very upfront with the entire community about our current status."

The company's Peregrine lander is on track for a critical design review towards the end of this year, he said, with a launch planned in the first quarter of 2021. "We're not going to oversell and suggest that we're going to fly any sooner than it is possible, and having the full confidence that we're going to fly successfully."

Ben Roberts, vice president of government affairs for Moon Express, said his company expects to fly its first lander in late 2020. The company is leaving open the option of doing a precursor orbiter, he said, "just to retire some risk and make sure everything is on track."

While noting they didn't have full insight into the plans of the other companies that are part of CLPS, they said they were skeptical that any company would be ready to fly a lunar lander mission before the end of this year.

"Unless somebody has not only a lunar lander sitting in their warehouse already, plus an existing launch slot of some kind, it would be pretty tough" to fly this year, Roberts said.

"I think it's highly unlikely we'll see missions happen this year," said Hendrickson. "If you look at the commercial launch manifest of all the major launch providers, I don't see anyone that's on the manifest for this year. If that's not happening, it's probably highly unlikely there's anyone on a posture to fly."

Both Hendrickson and Roberts, though, praised NASA for moving quickly on both selecting payloads and planning to award task orders for missions. "It's great that NASA is looking at ways to accelerate as much as possible," Hendrickson said.

"I think what they're really trying to say is, 'At NASA, we don't want to be the holdup. We want our payload ready by the end of the year,'" Roberts said. "It's up to us to go as fast as possible."

While CLPS companies may not be ready to fly NASA payloads this year, one agency payload is already on its way to the moon. Beresheet, the lunar lander developed by the Israeli organization SpaceIL and launched Feb. 21 as a secondary payload on a SpaceX Falcon 9, carries a small laser retroreflector provided by NASA. That passive device allows for accurate measurements of the lander's distance using ground-based lasers.

Although SpaceIL, being based outside the United States, is not eligible to participate in CLPS, NASA signed a cooperative agreement with the Israel Space Agency in October that included flying the retroreflector on the lander in exchange for access to data collected by the lander's magnetometer.

"As we better understand Israel's capabilities and the innovative work of their private industry, we know they'll be an even stronger international partner in the future, one vital to the success of extending commercial space to the Moon and eventually on to Mars and beyond," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement after the lander's successful launch.

This story was provided by SpaceNews, dedicated to covering all aspects of the space industry. 

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Jeff Foust
SpaceNews Senior Staff Writer

Jeff Foust is a Senior Staff Writer at SpaceNews, a space industry news magazine and website, where he writes about space policy, commercial spaceflight and other aerospace industry topics. Jeff has a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and earned a bachelor's degree in geophysics and planetary science from the California Institute of Technology. You can see Jeff's latest projects by following him on Twitter.