LEAG Letter Protesting Cancellation of Resource Prospector Mission

Resource Prospector prototype. (Credit: NASA)

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
NASA Administrator

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.

Respectfully yours.

Samuel J. Lawrence
LEAG Chair

Clive R. Neal
LEAG Emeritus Chair and Professor

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    The Lunar CATALYST landers should start landing on the Moon next year. Depending on the model they can land between 35kg and 100kg on the Moon. The Resource Prospector would need splitting into about 4 rovers. I hope this project is given a budget.

  • duheagle

    Looks as though LEAG might have jumped the gun a bit. It would have been nice if the new “Lunar COTS” program that is to replace Resource Prospector had been announced at the same time as the latter’s cancellation.

  • Michael Halpern

    I for one look forward to CMTS or CIPTS… Commercial Mars Transportation Service or Commercial Interplanetary Transportation Service…

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    Lunar COTS was/is Lunar CATALYST. NASA is calling CRS to the Moon the “Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS)”.


  • Michael Halpern

    CATALYST is for landers not the rest

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    If you watch the video Resource Prospector was a rover and a made-to-measure lander. I am suggesting they save the mission by buy off the shelf landers and make smaller rovers.

  • Michael Halpern

    which is what they are doing

  • I wish that the term “Lunar COTS” would be reserved for those public-private programs at the scale of COTS, Commercial Cargo, & Commercial Crew (CCCCC). e.g. the Falcon 9 wasn’t a small launcher delivering small, 100 kg packages to the ISS. Rather, it was a crew-scale launcher first used for large-scale cargo and then for crew. All of that within only 5% of NASA’s budget. Likewise, Lunar COTS should fund the development of crew-scale landers e.g. ULA-XEUS/ACES.

  • duheagle

    The announced CLPS program budget of $2.6 billion looks to be on a par with the original COTS. Given that it could be producing results as early as 2019, the basis for cancelling a mission not set to go – nominally – before 2022 makes sense. There’s enough time to gin up a human-based Lunar COTS program if one seems necessary. By the time 2019 rolls around we could well have already had announcements by both SpaceX and Blue Origin about human Moon landing plans.

  • Michael Halpern

    We technically do have an announcement by SpaceX about human Moon landing plans, 2017 IAC, though that may be considered overkill…

  • Michael Halpern

    COTS was massively successful, to the point where all P3s are going to be compared to it and it’s descendants. Using the term “X COTS” is inevitable

  • Vladislaw

    “Through the Lunar Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown (Lunar CATALYST) initiative, NASA competitively selected three partners in 2014 to spur commercial cargo transportation capabilities to the surface of the Moon. The no-funds-exchanged Space Act Agreement (SAA) partnerships with Astrobotic Technology of Pittsburgh, Pa., Masten Space Systems Inc. of Mojave, California. and Moon Express Inc., of Cape Canaveral, Florida, will not only develop capabilities that could lead to a commercial robotic spacecraft landing on the Moon, but also potentially enable new science and exploration missions of interest to NASA and to broader scientific and academic communities.

    The purpose of these SAAs is to encourage the development of robotic lunar landers that can be integrated with U.S. commercial launch capabilities to deliver payloads to the lunar surface. Lunar CATALYST represents another step in the agency’s effort to spur growth in the commercial space sector. Commercial lunar transportation capabilities could support sample returns, geophysical network deployment, resource prospecting, and technology demonstrations. They also could address emerging private sector demand to conduct activities on the Moon.”


  • Vladislaw

    “Commercial Lunar Transportation Study Market Assessment Summary”


    This is from 2010 sure reads like what NASA is doing right now.

  • Douglas Messier

    If you’re going to cancel a program and roll out an alternative, they should have done so in a different way.

  • Douglas Messier

    I personally have doubts about whether some of the companies involved in Lunar CATALYST can actually pull off a moon mission.You need the right combination of technical expertise, management competence, financial stability and operational experience. And probably a bit of luck. NASA could end up throwing money away on companies that lack the competence to do the job.

    Of course, the Lunar CATALYST companies are not the only ones that would be eligible for the program. So, it will be a broader range….

  • duheagle

    Fair point.

  • duheagle

    Yeah, that’s pretty much what I said.

  • duheagle

    One can certainly hope so.

  • duheagle

    Given that you have, and continue, to make it abundantly clear that you don’t even regard SpaceX as having “the right combination of technical expertise, management competence, financial stability and operational experience,” I think we can simply assume you’re never going to be okay with anything an enterprise-based, as opposed to gov’t.-based, lunar exploration program accomplishes.

  • Douglas Messier

    No. I didn’t say that about SpaceX. This was a narrower comment about companies in Lunar CATALYST. Don’t misquote me.