NASA has canceled its lunar robotic mission: What this means for human spaceflight

Resource Prospector designed to find resources to support human space travel

The Resource Prospector prototype searches for a buried sample tube at the Johnson Space Center rock yard in August 2015. Credits: NASA
The Resource Prospector prototype searches for a buried sample tube at the Johnson Space Center rock yard in August 2015. Credits: NASA

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – The Trump administration and NASA’s new administrator have made it clear: The space agency will send humans back to the moon before we go to Mars. That's why the team behind NASA's only planned robotic mission to the lunar surface were baffled when it was canceled last week.

As first reported by The Verge, NASA confirmed it had scrapped the Resource Prospector mission to the moon, which was on target to launch in 2022. The robotic mission included a moon lander and a rover with a drill that would help find possible water sources at the lunar poles.

On Friday, the agency posted a message to the Resource Prospector page on NASA.gov that said "selected instruments from Resource Prospector will be landed and flown on the Moon," but didn't specify what parts and did not mention the rover. Read the full statement here.

"We’re committed to lunar exploration at NASA," NASA's new Administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted. "Resource Prospector instruments will go forward in an expanded lunar surface campaign. More landers. More science. More exploration. More prospectors. More commercial partners. Ad astra!"

The NASA mission involved teams at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Ames Research Center and Johnson Space Center, including the rover wheels being developed at KSC in the Swamp Works lab for the lunar rover.

Finding a source of water off Earth is vital for further human space exploration, according to members of the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group. 

If it had made it, the lunar rover would have roamed the moon's surface, searching for sub-surface water, hydrogen and other volatiles that could be turned into rocket fuel.

“These deposits have extremely important exploration implications, as they could be viable resources to support not only human exploration into the Solar System but also a thriving lunar economy,” read part of the letter from the lunar group to Bridenstine. “Additionally, the deposits have unique scientific significance since they record the delivery of volatiles to the inner Solar System, including the Earth.”

The mission, which has been under development for almost a decade, was canceled on April 23, according to a letter from the group sent to Bridenstine the same day he was sworn in as NASA's 13th administrator.

University of Central Florida planetary scientist Dr. Phil Metzger, who was part of the Resource Prospector mission science team, told News 6 that the decision to cut the lunar robotic mission was put into motion months ago.

Metzger retired from NASA's Kennedy Space Center, founding the Swamp Works lab, before coming to UCF's Florida Space Institute.

Metzger said the team learned under former acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot that the mission was being moved from NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission directive to under the Science Mission Directive soon after it was cut from the SMD budget.

The missions under Human Exploration projects focus on just that: human space exploration, including Orion and the Space Launch System, where Science Mission Directive projects are for developing knowledge of the universe and planetary science.

“SMD has its own way of doing business and that way of doing business would not include the Resource Prospector mission. So, basically, by putting it in SMD, (it) was another way of saying 'Kill it,'" Metzger said.

Metzger said he couldn’t speculate if Lightfoot intended that result, but said members of the Resources Prospector team knew SMD couldn’t support the lunar robotic mission.

A day before the news of the program’s end, Bridenstine was tweeting from his new NASA administrator account about returning to the moon.

“Great 3rd day on the job with the NASA family,” he tweeted. "Excited to get to work on our plan to sustainably return America to the surface of the Moon starting with an aggressive robotic program.”

Metzger took to Twitter Friday to explain why this decision will make it harder for NASA to send humans to Mars.

“How can a vibrant cislunar economy make Mars more affordable for NASA? Multiple ways.” Metzger said. “Provide propellant made in-space to avoid launch costs. Cheaper in-space assembly of spacecraft. More space activity so economies of scale reduce overall cost of doing business in space.”

Metzger said if NASA brings down space travel costs, a mission to Mars becomes achievable.

He told News 6 he thinks the Resource Prospector was likely canceled to clear funds for NASA's Space Launch System. He said that if NASA wants the mega-rocket to happen it should also support projects such as the Resource Prospector.

SLS, which still under development, will launch from Kennedy Space Center on deep space missions. The program is over budget and behind schedule. The first crewed flight has been delayed to 2022. 

“If you want to support SLS, you should really support RP," Metzger said. "RP is going to change the in-space economy in a way that will make deep space missions economically viable and that will make SLS have a real mission.”

NASA's 13th administrator is under a week into leading the top agency. When Bridenstine reviews the situation he could save the mission. Metzger said he hopes that after reviewing all of the facts, Bridenstine will reverse course.

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