Explaining NASA’s approach to cargo moon landings

The surface of the moon, captured by Odysseus’ Terrain Relative Navigation camera from lunar orbit on Feb. 21, 2024.

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Overview: Moon shots on goal

We’re six years on from NASA declaring it would look to American companies to deliver cargo and research to the moon. Now we’re just hours away from the first potential landing 

Stepping aside from the history-making superlatives about Intuitive Machines’ IM-1 mission – we’ll save that for the attempt’s outcome later today – it’s worth exploring why a company is on the eve of pulling off the first step in NASA’s dream of making the moon a regular and (comparatively) affordable destination. 

And, just as importantly, why it’s not a disaster if the IM-1 landing doesn’t go according to plan.

Thomas Zurbuchen led the creation of NASA’s $2.6 billion CLPS program (colloquially pronounced “clips”) in an attempt to leverage the widening ambitions of private companies and fly multiple, if not dozens of moon missions for the world’s marquee space agency.

“Coming up with Commercial Lunar Payload Services, I basically felt that the moon as a planetary body had not been focused on enough. The question was: Can we [land cargo missions on the moon] at a rate that is substantially lower in cost than the half a billion to a billion dollars that it would take if we did it on the inside of the agency,” Zurbuchen told me.

Known by most as simply Dr. Z, he served as NASA’s head of science for six years, overseeing almost 100 science missions. Zurbuchen left the agency two years ago but is still staunchly rooting for the success of CLPS. While NASA contracts for CLPS missions are typically $100 million to $200 million, no paltry amount, Zurbuchen says he knew from the beginning “there’s a 50% likelihood of any one of these things to work.”

We’re one down on that count, with Astrobotic’s first mission having gone awry. The reality Zurbuchen emphasized is that landing on the moon is a herculean effort – and the mixed record of landing attempts since the 1960s, even by superpowers, reflects that.

The three leading CLPS lander companies – Astrobotic, Intuitive Machines and Firefly Aerospace – are each expected to fly at least one mission this year, and likely a second by 2025. So this NASA program is about tolerating failures and trying to help companies make as many attempts as possible, as frequently as possible, while the agency focusing its own efforts instead on its crewed Artemis missions.

“We should give it a few shots on goal to just make sure it can work at the 50% level, or find out if that is a lot less likely,” Zurbuchen said.

As much as CLPS companies are bidding against each other for contracts, it’s another example of what I’ve called space industry coopetition — simultaneous cooperation and competition. After all, the more that companies succeed in landing on the moon, the more political capital the program has to fund further missions. Already, Astrobotic represents that dynamic, holding a briefing with other CLPS companies to share the learnings from the company’s first effort.

But how many CLPS mission failures will NASA tolerate? Zurbuchen emphasized that, even if the missions aren’t successful, “two is not the right number to stop,” while “20 is too far.” 

“I hope we stick with it and that we give it the chance to see whether this program can be successful or not. After one or two years, then I think they should take a hard look at it,” Zurbuchen said.

What’s up

  • Airbus took $650 million in satellite-related charges last year, more than the company previously reported, citing “a bumpy ride” of delayed timelines and inaccurate cost estimates. – SpaceNews
  • Varda’s first in-space manufacturing mission returns : The company confirmed that its W-1 capsule touched down in the Utah desert. Varda is shipping the vials of the drug ritonavir that were made during the mission to its partner Improved Pharma for analysis. Rocket Lab, which built a custom spacecraft for Varda’s mission, heralded the landing as “phenomenal feat and impressive display of teamwork.” – Varda / Rocket Lab
  • SpaceX completes 300th successful Falcon 9 launch in a milestone that President Gwynne Shotwell emphasized makes the rocket “the most reliable and prolific launch system in the world today.” – Shotwell
  • Japan’s H3 rocket reaches orbit on second try, after a failed launch debut last year. The president of the country’s space agency told reporters, “We feel so relieved to be able to announce the good results.” – AP
  • Rocket Lab launches Astroscale’s debris removal spacecraft, with the Electron rocket deploying the ADRAS-J satellite in orbit. The satellite aims to inspect a discarded part from a Japanese H-2A rocket, with the eventual goal of removing the rocket’s upper stage from orbit on a later mission. – Rocket Lab
  • SpaceX is looking to take over one of ULA’s Florida launch pads : An Air Force-led environmental review is underway for SLC-37 at Cape Canaveral, which is set to become vacant after the last flight of United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy rocket. – Ars Technica
  • Blue Origin stands up New Glenn test rocket for the first time, rolling out a “pathfinder” vehicle to its launch pad at LC-36. In a post on Instagram, Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos said it was “just incredible to see New Glenn on the pad.” – Blue Origin / Bezos
  • Russia looks to open sanctions loophole for Roscosmos by concealing contract bids to allow shell companies to more easily purchase goods and bolster the state space agency’s restricted supply chain. – Ars Technica
  • Firefly says software error caused most recent Alpha launch to miss its target orbit : The company’s 4th rocket launch was largely successful but did not deliver the Lockheed Martin satellite to its intended orbit, an issue Firefly identified as due to “an error in the Guidance, Navigation, and Control (GNC) software algorithm that prevented the system from sending the necessary pulse commands to the Reaction Control System (RCS) thrusters ahead of the stage two engine relight.” – Firefly
  • Eutelsat delaying plan for launching second-generation OneWeb satellites: In an effort to cut costs for expanding the constellation, the company is focusing on optimizing the existing network due to ground network and distribution delays. – SpaceNews
  • Boeing targeting April 22 for first crewed Starliner launch, NASA disclosed in a media release, as the company prepares its long-delayed mission to fly astronauts in a final test of the spacecraft. – NASA

Industry maneuvers

  • Bridgit Mendler, former Disney Channel star and singer, launches startup Northwood Space: Backed by venture investors including Founders Fund, Andreessen Horowitz and Also Capital, Mendler’s company aims to mass produce satellite ground stations. – CNBC
  • Australian rocket startup Gilmour Space raises $36 million in a round led by Queensland Investment Corporation (QIC) alongside Blackbird, Main Sequence and funds HostPlus and HESTA. The company is preparing for the inaugural launch attempt of its Eris rocket from the Bowen Orbital Spaceport in north Queensland later this year. One of Gilmour’s investors described Gilmour’s tech as evolving from “a cute little thing that produced a fierce little flame” into a “full-scale rocket.” – Gilmour
  • Automated machine shop startup Hadrian raises $117 million in a combined equity and debt round from investors including RTX Ventures, Construct Capital, WCM, Bracket Capital, Shrug Capital, Lux Capital, a16z, Founders Fund, S&A, Silent Ventures, Cubit Capital, Caffeinated and Tru Arrow Partners. The startup aims to double the size of its automation team and potentially open a second factory with a partner. Hadrian has especially looked to supply aerospace and defense companies with parts. – TechCrunch
  • SpaceX reportedly won a $1.8 billion classified U.S. government contract in 2021, although details of the specific customer or purpose of the deal have not been disclosed. The company does a variety of national security contract work, ranging from launching spy satellites to its recent expansion of a derivative of Starlink called Starshield. – WSJ
  • Spire wins $9.1 million (€8.4 million) contract from the European Maritime Safety Agency for space-based automatic identification system (SAT-AIS) data services for ship tracking over a four-year period. – Spire
  • Satellite mapping startup Nuview acquired analytics platform Astraea for an undisclosed amount. – TechCrunch

Market movers

Boldly going

On the horizon

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