Updated on July 15 to clarify layoffs and furloughs.
Updated on July 15 with a statement from NASA.
by Douglas Messier
MOJAVE, Calif. — Cash-strapped Masten Space Systems has furloughed all of its staff, putting at risk both the company and a $75.9 million NASA-funded mission to deliver the MoonRanger rover and eight scientific payloads to the lunar surface aboard Masten’s XL-1 lander late next year.
“XL-1 is basically dead. To my knowledge, everyone who was working exclusively on XL1 has been laid off,” a source familiar with the situation told Parabolic Arc in a written response to questions. The source requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the matter.
The source was referring to a June 24 meeting in which 20 employees were laid off, including 15 engineers working on the XL-1 mission. Masten subsequently furloughed the rest of its staff for the month of July. A furlough means employees could be brought back to work at a later time.
The furloughs came after Masten spent the last several months shedding key employees. Reuben Garcia left in March after nearly 12 years with the company. His most recent roles were as director of technical operations/manager of landing systems.
Long-time CEO Sean Mahoney, who joined Masten as director of strategy in December 2010, announced his departure in April. The company began losing employees in the months that followed, the source said.
Another source at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California said the Masten Space parking lot has been empty all week. The source saw a delivery person fruitlessly trying to find someone to sign for a package at the company’s building.
Founder David Masten did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
NASA awarded a contract for Masten Mission 1 in April 2020 as part of the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative. Under the program, the space agency pays companies to deliver payloads to the moon instead of building the vehicles itself.
“The $75.9 million award includes end-to-end services for delivery of the instruments, including payload integration, launch from Earth, landing on the Moon’s surface, and operation for at least 12 days,” NASA said in a press release.
CLPS is part of NASA’s Artemis program to return astronauts to the lunar surface later in this decade. The precursor missions are decided to find evidence of water and characterize the lunar environment before astronauts arrive.
A NASA spokesperson responded with a statement on Friday evening.
In 2020, NASA selected Masten Space Systems of Mojave, California to deliver and operate eight payloads – with nine science and technology instruments – to the Moon’s South Pole in 2023. Through the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative, NASA is purchasing the delivery service from CLPS providers to deliver NASA payloads to the lunar surface. NASA, which is one of several customers with payloads scheduled to fly aboard Masten Mission One, has been notified that there are some changes taking place with Masten and that NASA’s payload delivery will be impacted. The agency is working closely with Masten and awaiting additional details on these changes. In the event Masten Space Systems is unable to deliver the agency’s eight payloads to the Moon, NASA will look to schedule delivery of these payloads on other CLPS flights. For additional information, please contact Masten Space Systems directly.
Masten is one of four companies awarded contracts for CLPS lunar landers. The other companies include: Astrobotic Technology of Pittsburgh, Pa.; Firefly Aerospace of Cedar Park, Texas; and Intuitive Machines of Houston, Texas.
The XL-1 lander was originally scheduled to launch in December 2022 bound for a landing at the moon’s south pole. In June 2021, Masten announced an 11-month launch delay to November 2023. The company said the delay was caused by industry-wide supply chain disruptions and the effects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
CLPS partners are expected to supplement NASA mission funding by carrying payloads for other parties. The source who requested anonymity said that is where Masten’s mission ran into problems.
“We ran out of money after grossly underbidding. The estimate was $105 million but I was told that we had found a 30 million dollar private customer who wanted to fly with us,” the source said.
However, that customer later pulled out the venture. Subsequent attempts to fill the gap failed, the source added.
“When the board ‘phased out’ Sean Mahoney sometime in April or May, the long-time angel investor Joel Scotkin took over as temporary CEO,” the anonymous source said. “He tried to reassure the team by saying that Masten had a two month runway and that would be plenty of time to find investors. However, that’s when we started leaking employees, maybe at a rate of two to three per week….
“Joel Scotkin tried to raise money, and we had several letters of intent, but the deals all fell through,” the source added. “Our greatest failure overall is most likely that we never had a chief engineer on the project, and our systems engineering team had never worked on spacecraft (they had lots of experience in construction work if I’m not mistaken).”
Parabolic Arc has reached out to Scotkin for comment. The story will be updated with any response received.
Masten has built and operated a family of reusable, low-altitude rockets that have been used to fly experiments and test technologies for use in landing vehicles on other worlds. Masten Mission 1 was the company’s first contract to build a spacecraft.
Masten was sued earlier this year by Agile Space over an alleged payment of $2.51 million that was owned for the production of spacecraft thrusters. A Masten spokeswoman said the suit had been settled.
“Masten and Agile have reached an amicable resolution that is satisfactory to both parties. To clarify, this matter is not related to Masten Mission 1, which is scheduled to launch in late 2023,” the spokesperson said.
Masten Mission 1 Payloads
NASA selected the following payloads to fly on Masten’s XL-1 lander.
- Lunar Compact Infrared Imaging System (L-CIRiS) will deploy a radiometer – a device that measures infrared wavelengths of light – to explore the Moon’s surface composition, map its surface temperature distribution, and demonstrate the instrument’s feasibility for future lunar resource utilization activities.
- Linear Energy Transfer Spectrometer (LETS) is a sensor that will measure the radiation environment on the Moon’s surface. The payload also is being flown on a CLPS flight to the Moon in 2021.
- Heimdall is a flexible camera system for conducting lunar science on commercial vehicles. This innovation includes a single digital video recorder and four cameras: a wide-angle descent imager, a narrow-angle regolith imager, and two wide-angle panoramic imagers. This camera system is intended to model the properties of the Moon’s regolith – the soil and other material that make up the top layer of the lunar surface – and characterize and map geologic features. Other goals for this instrument include characterizing potential landing or trafficability hazards.
- MoonRanger is a small robotic rover that weighs less than 30 pounds and will demonstrate communications and mapping technologies. It will demonstrate the ability to move quickly across long distances on the lunar surface with autonomous navigation and without the ability to communicate with Earth in real time. It is a technology that could enable exploration of destinations that are far from lunar landing sites. The MoonRanger will carry the Neutron Spectrometer System, which will measure the concentration of hydrogen in the Moon’s regolith – a possible indication of the existence of buried water.
- Mass Spectrometer Observing Lunar Operations (MSolo) is a device to measure potentially accessible resources on the Moon’s surface. It will identify gases coming off a lander during touchdown on the lunar surface to help scientists understand what elements are coming from the lunar surface and which ones are introduced by a lander itself.
- Near-Infrared Volatile Spectrometer System (NIRVSS) is a tool to measure surface composition and temperature. The instrument will characterize the variability of the lunar soils and detect volatiles such as methane, carbon dioxide, ammonia and water.
- Laser Retroreflector Array (LRA) is a series of eight small mirrors to measure distance and support landing accuracy. It requires no power or communications from the lander and can be detected by future spacecraft orbiting or landing on the Moon.
- Sample Acquisition, Morphology Filtering, and Probing of Lunar Regolith (SAMPLR) is a robotic arm that will collect samples of lunar regolith and demonstrate the use of a robotic scoop that can filter and isolate particles of different sizes. The sampling technology makes use of a flight spare from the Mars Exploration Rover project.