Once among the crown jewels of the U.S. Government, NASA secured its place in history in the 1950s and 60s, coming from behind to beat Russia to the moon and expanding the philosophical and scientific horizons for all of humanity to come. However, in recent decades, the civilian space agency has suffered from a combination of waning national interest coupled with unrealistic directives — with lawmakers simultaneously mandating the development of massive new platforms like the perpetually behind schedule Space Launch System, all the while providing the agency with insufficient resources to complete the tasks they’re given.
Being at the mercy of politicians often leaves NASA in the awkward position of trying to manage completely opposing expectations, as new leaders take office and redirect focus, and then again as budget debates force further changes. One significant example is that of NASA’s only lunar lander mission… that is, the only lunar lander mission NASA had. Despite President Trump mandating a return to the moon as among NASA’s top priorities in a policy directive published last December, NASA just had the first leg of that endeavor pulled out from under them.
The directive I am signing today will refocus America’s space program on human exploration and discovery,” said President Trump. “It marks a first step in returning American astronauts to the Moon for the first time since 1972, for long-term exploration and use. This time, we will not only plant our flag and leave our footprints — we will establish a foundation for an eventual mission to Mars, and perhaps someday, to many worlds beyond.”
NASA’s Resource Prospector mission was the only lunar lander currently in development within NASA’s hallowed halls. Tasked with surveying the Moon’s surface for compounds like hydrogen, oxygen and even water, the prospector was set to lay the ground work for a manned presence. Assessing the locations and availability of these integral compounds can help scientists determine the likelihood that a permanent moon base could be energy self-sufficient, produce its own oxygen, and so forth. This prospector mission was to be the first mission that ever sought to mine another world in search for materials beneficial to human exploration. Now, without much of an explanation, the program is simply gone.
If we want to go back to the moon and really work on the moon and make it a place that we can set up research stations and study processes that are occurring on the moon … all these things are really enabled by being able to use resources on the moon for making fuel, propellant, life support, that sort of thing,” said Dana Hurley, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. “This mission is a first step in trying to understand how we’re going to exploit those resources.”
NASA has already invested a great deal of money into the Resource Prospector mission, testing an operational prototype as far back as 2015. Recently, the program was reclassified under the agency’s Science Missions Directorate, taking it out of the manned exploration category, which is the emphasis on President Trump’s directives for the space agency. That reclassification not only represented a mismatch in the mission’s objectives according to those working on the project, it also meant the initiative would likely soon be shut down completely. It turns out, they were right.