- Parabolic Arc
- September 26, 2023
LEAG Letter Protesting Cancellation of Resource Prospector Mission
The Lunar Exploration Analysis Group (LEAG) sent the following letter to NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine on Thursday protesting the cancellation of the Resource Prospector mission.
Mr. James Bridenstine
26 April 2018
Dear Mr. Bridenstine:
We are writing on behalf of the community that the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group (LEAG) represents regarding the Resource Prospector (RP) mission, which has been under development for much of the last decade, to explore a polar region of the Moon for potential volatile deposits. 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. Additionally, the deposits have unique scientific significance since they record the delivery of volatiles to the inner Solar System, including the Earth.
We wrote to Drs. Gerstenmaier and Zurbuchen to describe the community-wide support for RP on 2 March 2018, after the redirection for this initially HEOMD-led mission to be shared with the new Lunar Exploration and Discovery Program within SMD. We now understand RP was cancelled on 23 April 2018 and the project has been asked to close down by the end of May. This cancellation apparently stemmed from the transfer of RP from HEOMD to SMD due to lack of FY18 funding within the AES program and a misalignment between RP’s goals and schedule and the new lunar program within SMD (which has different goals, timelines, and insufficient capability to deliver the RP payload). This action is viewed with both incredulity and dismay by our community, especially as the President’s Space Policy Directive 1 directs NASA to go to the lunar surface. RP was the only polar lander-rover mission under development by NASA (in fact, by any nation, as all of the international missions to the lunar poles are static landers) and would have been ready for preliminary design review at the beginning of 2019.
RP was developed as a mission highly focused on lunar resources and their utilization, so it is not presently responsive to the SMD portfolio as designed. For SMD to now lead this mission, it would necessitate changing the mission objectives, implementation, and risk posture (thus delaying the launch). However, it is our understanding that SMD has apparently declined to participate in this mission – hence this letter and our suggestions. Therefore, the cancellation of RP could be viewed as NASA not being serious about a return to the lunar surface.
While we do not understand the internal NASA rationale for this decision, we would respectfully suggest the following:
– Resource Prospector should be re-instated as an exploration mission within HEOMD – as it was originally designed. This would be the most effective way forward for NASA to respond positively to Space Policy Directive 1. RP has been designed as a prospecting mission, to fill Strategic Knowledge Gaps in the extent, accessibility and composition of polar ice as a humanexploitable resource, and thus, is appropriate for implementation through HEOMD;
– As we suggested in our email to Drs. Gerstenmaier and Zurbuchen (supported by recent LEAG meeting findings), though the RP instruments and objectives were not designed to address Decadal Survey goals, there are many overlapping objectives between the scientific and exploration assessment of polar volatile deposits. SMD could participate in RP through a) Lunar Exploration Analysis Group https://www.lpi.usra.edu/leag/ providing high-TRL instrumentation for the rover that would enhance the mission goals and the science yield (e.g., mineralogical determination of the regolith); b) establish a Participating Scientist program so dedicated science input could influence and enhance the mission profile, and c) take advantage of the >100 kg excess capacity provided by a lander capable of delivering RP to the lunar surface by creating a dedicated SMD polar mission with a competed payload.
It is important to note that while RP is a solar-powered mission in order to be cost-effective, it would likely be able to survive the lunar night for at least several day-night cycles through careful mission management and site selection, cleverly using locations near the poles of the Moon that minimize its residence time in darkness. If RP were re-designed to survive more day-night cycles (e.g., it was nuclear-powered instead of solar), it would seriously delay the mission. Furthermore, the ability or desire for a nuclear payload to be launched by a commercial provider in the near term is exceedingly low, given the complexity of the processes for radioactive materials handling and contingencies. We view RP as the first pathfinder rover that will inform the next generation of more capable prospecting rovers (i.e., nuclear-powered, as indicated by SMD).
Finally, the 2022 launch date is critical for three reasons:
– It would demonstrate to Congress that NASA can react quickly to the new space policy;
– It positions the USA to be an international leader in lunar development. There are six international robotic landed missions to the Moon’s polar regions planned between now and 2025 as other nations stake their claim to the resources we know are available on the Moon from orbital mission data since the Apollo program was terminated;
– RP results could be used to provide data for mining companies interested in producing life support consumables and rocket fuel, which would continue to stimulate the growing lunar commercial sector.
It is critical that NASA provide strong leadership in documenting that lunar surface return is being actively pursued. Cancellation of the only NASA lunar surface mission currently under development to obtain strategic data from the Moon’s polar regions is not the way to signal that intention. As stated above, RP would be a pathfinder for NASA’s contribution to the space economy, provide the first “ground truth” data for the poles since the LCROSS impact in 2009, be the first US lunar lander since Apollo 17 in 1972, and become be the first ever US robotic rover on the surface of the Moon. We thank you for considering this community input and please know that the LEAG community wants nothing but the very best for our space agency and our growing lunar commercial sector.
Samuel J. Lawrence
Clive R. Neal
LEAG Emeritus Chair and Professor