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.
This set back in NASA’s plan to put humans back on the moon comes just as China announced its own plans to build a permanently manned scientific output on the moon themselves. As SOFREP has discussed before, China’s space agency is not a civilian endeavor comparable to NASA, but rather serves as an extension of their defensive infrastructure. That means their plans for a “lunar palace,” as it is described in The China National Space Administration video released on April 24th, likely have loftier aspirations than simply conducting some science experiments.
However, the possibility remains that lunar exploration may still be on the menu for NASA, particularly in the face of China’s efforts to secure their own real estate on our nearest cellestial neighbor. Newly appointed NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine took to Twitter on Friday to indicate that the program may not be dead, and that there could be more to come.
We’re committed to lunar exploration @NASA. 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!” He wrote.
NASA’s official statement also follows the agency’s new boss’s lead, painting a rosy and optimistic picture of lunar exploration without directly addressing when any of this lunar exploration is expected to take place, since the only program it had in the pipeline is now canceled.
NASA is developing an exploration strategy to meet the agency’s expanded lunar exploration goals. Consistent with this strategy, NASA is planning a series of progressive robotic missions to the lunar surface. In addition, NASA has released a request for information on approaches to evolve progressively larger landers leading to an eventual human lander capability. As part of this expanded campaign, selected instruments from Resource Prospector will be landed and flown on the Moon. This exploration campaign reinforces Space Policy Directive 1, which calls for an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with commercial and international partners to enable human expansion across the solar system, including returning humans to the Moon for long-term exploration.” NASA wrote in an officials statement.
Whether or not that was the sort of optimism one is prone to during their first few weeks in a new position, or it’s indicative of a restructuring that will still prioritize a manned presence on the moon, however, remains to be seen.
Feature image courtesy of NASA