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SpaceIL lander
Beresheet, the privately funded lunar lander developed by SpaceIL, is scheduled for launch later this week. (credit: SpaceIL)

Moon racing

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The Moon is becoming a popular destination once again.

In early January, China landed its Chang’e-4 lander within von Kármán Crater on the far side of the Moon, deploying the Yutu-2 rover. The spacecraft was China’s second mission to land on the Moon, after Chang’e-3 five years earlier, and it was the first spacecraft by any nation to touch down on the far side.

“We are making history and are proud to be part of a group that dreamed and realized the vision that many countries in the world share, but so far only three have realized,” said SpaceIL’s Kahn.

That landing marked the start of what promises to be the most active year in lunar exploration in decades. On Thursday night, a SpaceX Falcon 9 will lift off from Cape Canaveral, with its primary payload the Nusantara Satu communications satellite, built by Space Systems Loral for an Indonesian company. Hitching a ride on the rocket will be Beresheet, a lunar lander built for SpaceIL, a former Google Lunar X Prize team that is pressing ahead with its plans to go to the Moon.

The Falcon 9 will place Beresheet into an elliptical transfer orbit. It will gradually extend the apogee of that orbit until it’s captured by lunar gravity, entering orbit around the Moon prior to attempting a landing, currently scheduled for April 11. Israel Aerospace Industries, which built the lander, already has an agreement with a German company, OHB, to use that lander as a platform for future missions, perhaps for the European Space Agency.

“We are making history and are proud to be part of a group that dreamed and realized the vision that many countries in the world share, but so far only three have realized,” said Morris Kahn, president of SpaceIL, in a statement Monday. If successful, Israel would be the fourth country, after the former Soviet Union, the United States, and China, to land a spacecraft on the Moon. It would also be the first privately funded spacecraft—SpaceIL relied largely on philanthropic donations—to land on the Moon.

India is in line to be the fifth. The Chandrayaan-2 mission, after a number of delays, is scheduled to launch this spring, with both and orbiter and a lander, the latter also carrying a rover. (India’s first lunar mission, Chandrayaan-1 a decade ago, was an orbiter alone.) China is set to return to the Moon late this year with Chang’e-5, its first sample return mission and the first such mission by any country since the mid-1970s. That mission, though, will depend on the return to flight of the Long March 5 rocket in the middle of this year, two years after its last launch ended in failure.

Given this activity, it’s perhaps not too surprising that NASA is emphasizing urgency in its lunar plans. Last week, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine and other agency leaders met with the media ahead of an industry day for a new lunar lander study. That study, in the form of an addendum to its Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) program, is intended to examine designs for elements of future human lunar lander systems.

But what nearly stole the show was a discussion of robotic missions. In November, NASA announced contracts to nine companies for its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, where it will pay companies for the delivery of technology demonstrations and scientific instruments to the lunar surface (see “Three ways to the Moon”, The Space Review, December 3, 2018). At the time of that announcement, NASA provided few details about what payloads it would fly on those commercial landers, or when.

“We have told everyone who is in our catalog that we will incentivize speed financially,” Zurbuchen said. “If you can fly faster, we will incentivize that. We care about speed.”

But in last week’s media briefing, Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, which runs CLPS, said the agency wanted to move ahead quickly. “For us, if we had any wish, we’d like to fly this calendar year,” he said. “We want to go fast. We may not be able to, and it’s not because of us. The speed will be set by the commercial sector.”

Zurbuchen said NASA was working to quickly identify payloads that could fly on those commercial landers, using a two-track approach. In one, NASA was seeking payloads inside the agency that could be ready quickly. He said he expected to announce later this week the selection of about a dozen such payloads, from cameras to analyze plumes created by the landers as they touch down to instruments originally planned for Resource Prospector, a NASA lunar rover mission cancelled last year.

A second track involves soliciting proposals for ready-to-fly payloads from outside the agency. That effort was slowed down by the five-week partial government shutdown, but Zurbuchen said he made that effort a priority once the shutdown ended, with proposals due late this month. “This is the one thing we advanced the fastest,” he said.

The goal of those efforts is to ensure that NASA has payloads that could be flown on a commercial lunar lander as soon as that lander is ready to fly. “If we have a ride in late 2019, we will have instruments in late 2019,” he said.

NASA plans to issue the first task order for a commercial lunar mission under CLPS within the next month, Zurbuchen said. Companies with CLPS contracts will be able to bid to carry out that mission and fly the selected payloads, and he promised that those who are able to fly this year would be in line for a bonus. “We have told everyone who is in our catalog that we will incentivize speed financially,” he said. “If you can fly faster, we will incentivize that. We care about speed.”

“That’s a big deal: first task order within a month,” Bridenstine interjected. “This is a program that is moving fast, and it’s moving fast intentionally.”

Bridenstine and others mentioned sustainability as well as speed, even if they emphasized the latter. They also noted that there’s no guarantee that these commercial missions will be successful. “We want to start taking shots on goal,” Zurbuchen said, using a metaphor he’s previously used to suggest not all missions will be successful, just as not all shots on goal make it into the goal. “We do not expect that every one of those launches, every one of those landings will be successful. We are taking risks at the beginning in a way that allows the commercial sector to learn.”

That emphasis on speed extends to the human lunar lander study. Proposals will be due to NASA March 25, and the agency expects to make awards in May and get the winning companies on contract by July for six-month studies. “That’s really fast for this kind of program,” Bridenstine said.

The studies will examine ways to carry out parts of NASA’s baseline architecture for landing humans on the Moon, including development of a descent stage, transfer tug for moving from one lunar orbit to another, and refueling systems. (NASA is holding off on studies of the lander’s ascent stage, said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration, to see if human-rating requirements can be contained to just that element.)

“In these studies, we want to see, with this reference architecture that we’ve been studying for about a year, year and a half, is how do these pieces come together, and how do you use those,” said Gerstenmaier. “We’ve got lots of things that we really want industry’s input in.”

One issue, though, is how NASA will consider proposals that don’t follow that baseline architecture, which the agency outlined last fall. For example, what if SpaceX eschews that three-stage lunar lander system—ascent module, descent module, and transfer stage—in favor of its far larger single-stage Starship vehicle?

But what about the role of competition, particularly with China? “We put humans on the Moon in 1969, so I think that race is over,” Bridenstine said.

Gerstenmaier said NASA is open to those alternative approaches, but it’s not clear how they’ll be considered. “If there are some proposals that come in that are different, that want to reflect a totally different architecture, we’ll still evaluate those,” he said. “They won’t necessarily be part of this [broad agency announcement] study, but we’ll take those off to the side.”

Speed is a factor in emphasizing NASA’s current architecture. “We want to do this fast,” he said. “We’ve got to kind of hone in on a reference architecture, build a plan, see what pieces we can do with that, and then move forward.” The results of the study could be the basis for future selections of a smaller group of companies for future studies and even hardware development.

This new emphasis on speed comes after some criticism last fall of NASA’s reference architecture, which calls for landing humans on the Moon by 2028. “Personally, I think 2028 for humans on the moon, that’s ten years from now. It just seems like it’s so far off,” said former astronaut Eileen Collins at a meeting of the National Space Council’s Users’ Advisory Group in November. “We can do it sooner.”

That reaction was only a partial factor in this new emphasis on speed, Bridenstine said. “Certainly I agree with the National Space Council’s Users’ Advisory Group recommendation, agree with it 100 percent,” he said. It’s also, the former congressman added, “in response to me, kind of being a member of Congress and wanting to see more speed out of NASA long before I came to the agency.”

In fact, the plans outlined during the industry day still call for landing humans on the Moon in 2028, four years after a test of a descent stage and two years after a full-up test of the entire landing architecture, minus people.

But what about the role of competition, particularly with China? “I get this question a lot about what’s driving us to go the Moon so far, and are we worried about other countries and their capabilities to get to the Moon,” Bridenstine said. He then outlined the recent achievements of NASA beyond the Moon, like the InSight landing on Mars and New Horizons’ flyby of a distant Kuiper Belt object on New Year’s Day. “Somebody lands on the far side of the Moon, and NASA lands on the far side of Mars.”

“We put humans on the Moon in 1969, so I think that race is over,” he added.

He emphasized the role commercial and international partnerships will play in its lunar plans. “We want to take advantage of all of these different partnerships. I think it’s part of American leadership.”

There will be, it seems, many potential partners to work with.

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