NASA already has those of us here on Earth excited with future plans for the Lunar Orbital Platform Gateway that will someday be a launchpad for Mars. Who isn’t eager to see bootprints in the moondust for the first time since Apollo 17? Until that momentous leap happens, the space agency has made it obvious it isn’t going to wait until a human mission takes off to level up its technology for lunar exploration.
As part of its Exploration Campaign aligned with Space Policy Directive 1, NASA is reaching out to the U.S. commercial space industry for Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) in the form of new tech to fly payloads to the moon. These services will kickstart robotic moon missions that may touch down a few years ahead of schedule, while the agency continues to develop moon landers and research the lunar surface in more depth before astronauts return to explore those craters.
Mars landers aren’t the only ones having fun. NASA is challenging space companies to show off their coolest lunar lander concepts for a chance at creating (among other technologies) the next robot to crawl across the moon, which will be a plus both ways by giving these commercial entities an incentive boost while furthering the agency’s plans for science and exploration with new innovations.
What NASA is looking for are robo-prospectors that will return samples, search the moon for resources, show they are able to use those resources in space. They will also serve as prototypes for landers that will bring humans to the moon and give insight on how to minimize risk.
“We’ll draw on the interests and capabilities of U.S. industry and international partners as American innovation leads astronauts back to the Moon and to destinations farther into the solar system, including Mars,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said. “Our successful investments with a strong and continually growing U.S. space industry in low-Earth orbit allows us to focus on lunar activities."
NASA already has a whole universe of lunar exploration, tech and science objectives in its sights, and some of these instruments and experiments for lunar exploration will be expansions of concepts from the Resource Prospector mission, which was supposed to be a one-shot that would zero in on a particular area on the moon. Resource Prospector is now being evolved to fit a broader strategy that includes locating, extracting, and processing elements on the lunar surface and will be a part of the CLPS missions that bring new robotics to the moon.
“It is critical that America leads this sustained presence with commercial and international partners on and around the Moon,” said Bridenstine.
That aside, admit it—you just can’t wait to see a historic moon landing if you weren’t around for the first one.