NASA Outlines New Lunar Science, Human Exploration Missions

Image Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University

WASHINGTON, DC (NASA PR) — NASA is focused on an ambitious plan to advance the nation’s space program by increasing science activities near and on the Moon and ultimately returning humans to the surface.

As part of the President’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal, NASA is planning a new Moon-focused exploration campaign that starts with a series of progressive commercial robotic missions.

“The Moon will play an important role in expanding human presence deeper into the solar system,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator of the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Coupled with the capabilities enabled by the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, these missions will usher in a new era of exploration of the Moon and its resources, and provide a training ground for human missions to Mars.”

Commercial Landers  

NASA plans to enlist a series of commercial robotic landers and rockets to meet lunar payload delivery and service needs. The agency will release a draft request for proposals this spring to initiate commercial lunar payload service contracts for surface delivery as early as 2019.

This solicitation, which will be open to all domestic commercial providers, complements ongoing NASA efforts to stimulate the emerging space economy. The Lunar CATALYST partnerships have already helped advance commercial capabilities to deliver small payloads to the lunar surface.

NASA is also interested in understanding and developing requirements for future human landers. By developing landers with mid-size payload capacity (500 to 1,000 kg – roughly the size of a smart car) first, this will allow evolution toward large-scale human-rated lunar landers (5,000 to 6,000 kg). Additionally, this class of lander can support larger payloads to the Moon addressing science and exploration objectives such as sample return, resource prospecting, demonstrations of in-situ resource utilization (ISRU), and others.

The agency will seek information from industry later this month for larger lander development, and determine how best to proceed with potential partnerships. NASA plans to follow that effort with a solicitation to enable the partnerships between NASA and industry. The first of two mid-size commercial missions to the Moon for NASA could come as early as 2022.

Science and Technology

The campaign – supported by science and technology projects and activities – is designed to enable seamless collaboration across NASA, leveraging agency, commercial and international partnerships toward a common goal.

“This agency-wide strategy will inspire and enable humankind to take the next bold steps to our lunar neighbor,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters. “While American innovation will lead the way, partnerships and opportunities with U.S. industry and other nations will be expanded.”

NASA’s intrepid robotic explorers have and continue to provide vital data to support future exploration plans. The agency’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter continues to study the lunar surface from orbit, providing data needed for future robotic and human landers. Plans are underway now for an enhanced lunar sample analysis campaign to ensure data from existing Apollo samples is widely available to support future exploration. NASA also is providing ShadowCam as a U.S. contribution to the Korea Aerospace Research Institute’s first lunar exploration mission, Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter (KPLO). ShadowCam will map the reflectance within the permanently shadowed regions to search for evidence of frost or ice deposits.

A new analysis of data from two lunar missions found evidence that the Moon’s water could be widely distributed across the surface rather than confined to a particular region or type of terrain. The findings could help researchers understand the origin of the Moon’s water and its feasibility and accessibility as a resource.

NASA plans to use a number of CubeSats to affordably study the lunar environment. Thirteen CubeSats will launch on Exploration Mission-1, the agency’s first integrated flight of the Space Launch System and Orion. Four of them, LunaH-Map, Lunar IceCube, Lunar Flashlight, and LunIR, will use state-of-the art instrumentation to investigate the abundance, locations, and composition of Moon resources.

Building on knowledge obtained from lunar orbit, NASA will develop new science and technology payloads, to be delivered by commercial lunar landers. The opportunity to deploy instruments directly on the lunar surface will improve our understanding of the Moon and its resources, and enable the testing of new technologies for exploration.

The Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway will serve NASA and its commercial and international partners as a uniquely valuable staging point and communications relay for exploration and science missions in deep space. The agency recently hosted a workshop to discuss how the gateway could facilitate new scientific discoveries in a variety of ways, including support to lunar sample return missions and other lunar surface science activities.

“Together, science and technology communities will continue studies of the Moon, with a focus on identifying the lunar resources important for exploration to our Earth companion and into the solar system and beyond,” said Zurbuchen.

  • SamuelRoman13

    Back to the ’60s. Commercial Crew has 173m, but also 2,000m under Commercial Cargo and Crew. I checked the budget. An article awhile back said 173m for Crew.

  • Terry Stetler

    What happens if BFS bypasses CCrew and lands on the Moon before a crewed Orion gets off the ground? With the first BF Spaceship under construction & heading for tests next year….

  • Jeff2Space

    I personally doubt BFR/BFS could do that in 6 years, which is when Orion is scheduled to fly with a crew. My guess is we’ll see BFR/BFS flying test flights by then, but landing on the moon by then? I think that’s a stretch.

    But I’d love to be proven wrong.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    With all due respect to Elon Musk, who has accomplished amazing things, some of the SpaceX zealots on this site are all too prone to credit his products early for accomplishments he has yet to produce.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    In one respect, I wish we could go back to the 60’s where landing on the Moon was a national priority and we spent whatever was necessary to make it happen. It took only 9 years to get from Shepard to Armstrong. Those circumstances and priorities no longer apply, however, and now we talk about filling cis-lunar space with cubesats while waiting for commercial interests to develop landers and EVENTUALLY putting boots on the Moon.

    It is sad, but other priorities we have as a nation are just as important or even more important than returning to the Moon. I guess we’ll just have to do it slowly. At least I had the privilege of watching it the first time.

  • Michael Halpern

    Seeing as no one else except Bezos is really trying to compete, its 75% chance Musk will be first, sls is a joke and even if it flies with crew first it will never be very useful

  • ThomasLMatula

    You keep forgetting how SLS/Orion keeps slipping. The last problem is that NASA needs to rebuild the mobile platform between the first and second SLS flights. A process that will take years the NASA way.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Agree. And I think that the idea SLS is a joke is starting to be recognized outside of space advocates. If the first launch keeps slipping it could end up scrapped.

    Elon Musk should do a graphic of the Orion launching on a test flight on the Falcon Heavy 🙂

  • We should be funding the development of the crew sized ULA/Master – XEUS lander first for large cargo deliveries then human-rating it as cargo flight experience comes along. Scaling up from MoonEx-sized landers is a recipe for delay. IOS, we should repeat our success with full-scale COTS, Commercial Cargo, & Commercial Crew but with Lunar COTS.

    Pence is being poorly advised. Is this an Administration who wants to do things expensive and small or cost-effective and bigly?

  • Michael Halpern

    Nah scrap Orion too, besides it already had a test flight at least as far as heat shield, on Delta IV Heavy

  • Michael Halpern

    It’s an administration that wants to spend great amounts of money to do great things and bask in the greatness of it all.

  • Michael Halpern

    Elon has 2 reputations, not being on time and always achieving the goal in some form eventually, generally when he sets out to do something it seems more a question of “when” not “if”

  • P.K. Sink

    …NASA plans to enlist a series of commercial robotic landers and rockets to meet lunar payload delivery and service needs….

    This could turn out to be a really big deal for Astrobotic, Masten and Moon Ex. I’m excited for them.

  • But they’ll be spending an excess of money doing something that isn’t great at all. So, it’stge worst of both worlds. My suspicion is that Pence and Trump don’t know much about space and so they look to people like Pace to tell them what to believe. Pace being a wonky academic type has these mental constructs about what a thoughtful, modest, design of space policy should be and do plays expensive, boring things such as the DSG as making sense from a long-term policy standpoint. But what we need is an approach that uses the budget that we do have and uses smart strategies to achieve truly remarkable outcomes. At I describe using Lunar COTS including FHs to establish humanity’s first permanent foothold off Earth within current budgets and a relatively near-term timeline. But I’m not expecting Pace to be anything but a boring wonk. He’s not a Von Braun.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Lockheed will scream like they did when President Obama tried to kill it with the rest of Project Constellation.

  • Michael Halpern

    Lockheed Martin isn’t as relevant anymore and they certainly won’t be as relevant by the time bfr is flying or about to fly, at least not as far as space industry is concerned power shifts, and it’s shifting now

  • Jacob Samorodin

    It could also revive the ‘private’ Israeli & Indian lunar lander/rover projects that stalled short of the GLXP prize-money. Afterall, Trump is a friend of Israel and the Jews.

  • P.K. Sink


  • delphinus100

    Well, when you treat it like a race:

    1. You pick architectures that put time and schedule over sustainability. And…

    2. When you *win* a race (especially one in which your only competitor drops out when it becomes clear that they can’t win, and claims they were never in…the only actual ‘hoax’ where the Moon is concerned), what do you usually do?

    You stop.

    Running fast stops being a ‘priority.’

    But it also warps our thinking to the effect that big things can only be done by similar ‘waste anything but time’ projects, rather than slow but steady efforts to improve launch costs (The Shuttle turned out to not be that, but we didn’t get serious about alternatives until it was retired.)

  • ThomasLMatula

    But they have been working on it since 2006.

    NASA Selects Lockheed Martin To Be Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle Prime Contractor
    Press Release
    From: NASA HQ
    Posted: Thursday, August 31, 2006

    Actually 2004 if you count the original RFP. Do you want to let two decades of work recreating the Apollo Capsule to just go to waste?

  • Terry Rawnsley

    You can say that about almost any feat of engineering. Doing it on time still counts for something. I certainly wouldn’t bet against him building and flying his BFR but I’m willing to wait and see. In the meantime, I’d like to see FH man-rated but he’s not taking my calls. 🙂

  • Terry Rawnsley

    I think that we are long past the point where we can treat it like a race. We won the race to the Moon and unless some other party presents us with a compelling reason to go back in a hurry, we have reached the point where we need to learn to exploit space and its resources. For all of the criticism of the ISS, that is what we are learning to do. Every year that we spend working on the station we learn more about how to function outside the gravity well. It isn’t flashy and sometimes it is downright boring but it is the kind of necessary work we have to do.

    Even so, we can only learn so much in LEO but before we contemplate expanding outward we have to answer the question of not how do we get there but what will we do there? The answer to that is what will really create a commercial market.

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    Fans of the Orion can draw the it launching on the Falcon Heavy.

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    NASA is also interested in understanding and developing requirements for
    future human landers. By developing landers with mid-size payload
    capacity (500 to 1,000 kg – roughly the size of a smart car) first, this
    will allow evolution toward large-scale human-rated lunar landers
    (5,000 to 6,000 kg).

    I assume this is describing the Masten XL-1 and XEUS landers.

  • My view is that, if NASA started COTS with “care package” size deliveries to the ISS of 500 kg and then worked up to the 2,500 to 3,500 that they now have, and then worked up to crew-sized vehicles that it would have just delayed things. There is a need for MoonEx-sized landers for prospecting but we have the capability of doing a repeat of the Dragon capsule which was intended to be human-rated eventually but started with cargo at that size. There’s no point in hoping that MoonEx will scale up to human scale. It is in a different category altogether. Blue Moon is in this weird, intermediate category which is useful for a fair amount of cargo but I see no evidence that they view it as being able to be eventually human-rated. So, the analogy is the Cygnus cargo vehicle. But we can and should move now towards a XEUS-sized lander which starts as cargo, but with flight experience becomes human-rated.

  • Zed_WEASEL

    What Task Force. All you need is one LPD amphibious assault ship.

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    Big lander need big launches to get them to lunar orbit. Five years ago the landers had to be mass restricted to fit a Falcon 9 or Atlas V. This year 2018, heavier landers can be made and launched.

    COTS was paid for where as Lunar CATALYST was ‘free’ to NASA. Larger and man rated lander will probably have to be paid for as small firms cannot afford to develop them.

    XEUS is due to have System Concept Design Review 1 this month. I hope the slides are published.

  • Can you give a link to that report about the XEUS review?

    If NASA were to pay to have LH added to the SpaceX launch site(s) and paid the participating companies then my scenario is that the XEUS with external drop tank gets launched on top of a Falcon Heavy. My calcs are that about 10 tonnes of payload could be delivered one-way to the lunar surface which is enough payload budget to start full-scale excavation and processing icy regolith at propellant levels. If successful then crew launches on the same would need only one FH launch. If not ever successful then it would take two FH launches. Either way, a dramatic savings compared to the current Default Path.

  • How about an uncrewed BFR-BFS landing in the Moon in six years? At any rate, I think that any real progress (starting with a full-scale BFS doing test hops) is going to put increasing pressure on the SLS due to the latter’s high costs. Every time SpaceX shows the BFS doing something new, journalists and some congressmen are inevitably going to wonder why we are spending so much on the SLS when the BFR will do more with less. I think that the whole BFR-BFS will not be proven to be an SLS replacement until both demonstrate the BFS at Mars return velocities. But plenty will be willing to jump the SLS ship long before that point.

  • windbourne

    thats just it.
    With Commercial space where it is, it is LONG past time for us to push space stations onto private space, AND to push for the moon.
    It really does not have to be expensive to do this.
    1) get 2-3 private space stations going.
    2) at same time, start putting small landers/robotics on the moon and exploring for landing sites to set a base, as well as crawling into shadows to really see what is there.
    3) if NASA started the above, within 3-4 years, we could land humans on the moon.

  • windbourne

    There really is no reason to man-rate FH. It is too expensive and does not gain that much. Lets say that you man-rate it. What then? Will you launch 30 ppl into space? Nope. Still just the dragon with 7 ppl.
    That can be done by F9.
    Once BFR is running, then when man-rating it, it should be possible to do 50. And while I do not buy sending 100 to mars on just the BFS, I have no doubt that it could send 50 to the moon.

  • windbourne

    Not just L-Mart, but Boeing, Raytheon, AR, and of course, ESA/Airbus.
    Zero chance of cancellation.
    Yet, the question will be, what to do with it esp if something like a BA-330 is used to ferry ppl to/from the moon.

  • windbourne

    I maintain that Bigelow needs to get their BA-330 up there QUICKLY, combined with ACES or some other tug and use that for a ferry. Sending 6 ppl with cargo makes good sense.
    Then once BFS/BFR is going, then it would be possible to send 25-50 ppl.

  • windbourne

    Do you know how big and soon for Blue Origins lunar lander?

    And yes, pence has no grasp, so he is obviously being advised poorly.

  • 5 tonnes of payload one-way. But as with all things BO, we’ll only find out when when they decide to tell us.

  • windbourne

    Pace is not really an academic type. He obtained his PhD at a joke (though BS was Mudd, and MS was MIT, but on politics), and has done nothing but work in either GOP admins, or for far right groups.
    IOW, nothing academic since 30 years ago.

  • Michael Halpern

    Actually BFS taking 100 really just depends on how robust the life support is, except for during solar storm, its not like all 100 will be awake at the same time and food can be pretty compact though you might use 5-10 cabins for hydroponics dropping it to around 70 people, it’s technically feasible,

  • duheagle

    Nice thought, but ACES isn’t supposed to be operational until mid-next decade. If BFS is actually doing hops in TX next year, it’ll be going to both the Moon and Mars with people aboard before ACES is a thing. That leaves “some other tug.” Kind of like those pro sports player trade deals where the sweetener is always “and a draft pick to be named later.” At the moment, “some other tug” is probably further out there than ACES, though never say never.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    So we’ll have no functioning heavy lift for people until SLS comes along? Until they bend iron, BFR is just a paper rocket. If you man-rate FH, you can fly both people and cargo to the Moon faster and cheaper than SLS. Congress will not cancel SLS unless an existing system can do the job demonstrably better and cheaper.

  • Jeff2Space

    As someone else pointed out in another article’s comments, there are likely to be several versions of the BFS. Clearly the “grasshopper”/pathfinder version will be first. Issues found will be addressed in the next version. I suspect the next version will be unmanned cargo to LEO/GTO so SpaceX can start to transition Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy business to BFS. Next I’d guess a manned version would follow to replace Dragon 2 for LEO missions (and possibly beyond).

    Somewhere later I’d expect to see a tanker BFS, lunar landing capable BFS, Mars landing capable BFS, and etc.

  • windbourne

    5 tonnes would be a nice amount to put on the moon now.

  • windbourne

    OATK is really hurting for projects. They would be smart to jump all over the tug/fuel depot. In particular, it is a cheap project since they have so many of the other parts.

  • windbourne

    How much iron is bent for SLS? Less than for BFR.

    BFR is working on the engines, but has the tanks. They have the avionics, the set-up for designing and building rockets, and have worked with large multiple engines set-ups.

    OTOH, SLS had working engines, but has been re-doing them.
    They have to build a new launch tower even though they have not done one in ages.
    They are re-doing all their avionics.
    They are re-doing all their designs.
    They are re-doing all of their metal working.
    All in all, the SLS is further behind the BFR.

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    The XEUS System Concept Design Review 1 is Milestone 20 in Masten Space’s Lunar CATALYST Space Act Agreement with NASA.

    I do not know the current status of this review.

  • BFS is only the upper stage. Can you go back and explain what you are saying that there needs to be a booster and not just the upper stage to do most all of what you said.

  • duheagle

    Mmmm, maybe. NGO-ATK seems to be doing some non-trivial work toward actualizing their Next Generation Launcher proposal. And then there’s that Minuteman III replacement project to be shooting for. If both of those get ginned up, NGO-ATK is going to be plenty busy without taking on a space tug too.

  • Jeff2Space

    Yes, you need a booster (BFB?) to do all of that. But there would only need to be one version of the booster.

    But, to do all that they want with the spaceship (BFS), it would seem like there needs to be several different versions of it. The most obvious is the tanker version (delete payload bay, add or stretch tanks).

  • There’s two XEUS Lander concepts. A Centaur that could be modified to be a lander and a modification of the future ACES. If a set of Lunar COTS program’s could be funded and directed towards the development of a lunar lander(s) then this completely changes the timeline. The first lander could be the Centaur-XEUS which we could get in just a few years (3-4).

    To get a BFR (BFB-BFS) functional for lunar ops there’s a whole lot more to do beyond the first hops. They’re talking SSTO-BFS which has never been done before. Grasshopper and F9s exploded x 2 plus all of the crash landings resulting in delays. Same could happen with BFS & BFR.

    So, we need a plan for a lunar return program using existing & near-term hardware and then transition to the BFR when that time comes. No need to wait probably by the end of a second term to know if SpaceX has overcome the considerable engineering challenges for a fully-reusable BFR. My opinion.

  • Zubrin will be publishing an article in Space News on the 26th with a lunar return architecture in which he uses FH for lander & cargo and the F9 for crew to LEO where they transfer to the lander. No need to help man-rate the FH.

  • Zed_WEASEL

    Trump is planning the ill advised move of the US embassy for Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.