Paul Spudis, writing in his blog at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Magazine, noticed that NASA has put out a “request for information” to commercial enterprises about small, lightweight, and cheap lunar landers.
NASA’s interest in such things includes, “lunar polar volatile prospecting, sample return, and geophysical network deployment, would involve landing two classes of payloads at various sites (including the polar regions) possibly as early as 2018. Small class payloads range from 30 to 100 kg, and medium class payloads range from 250 to 450 kg.”
NASA is willing to bring to a government/commercial partnership, “• Technical Expertise: NASA envisions that an integrated team comprised of NASA civil servants and the industry partner personnel could work together to design, develop, and test landers. • Test Facilities: NASA can provide industry partners, at no cost, access to testing facilities such as thermal vacuum chambers, clean rooms, etc., as available. • Hardware and Software: NASA may be able to contribute specific hardware and software elements for the development and testing of the lander.”
The space agency specifically rules out actually paying for these landers, which may be a sticking point for any joint venture back to the moon, which President Obama in any case has ruled out.
To be sure, teams participating in the Google Lunar X Prize are developing their own lunar landers. NASA itself has its own lander test programs, Morpheus and Mighty Eagle. Spudis mentions RESOLVE, short for Regolith and Environment Science and Oxygen and Lunar Volatiles Extraction , a rover that would travel across the lunar surface prospecting minerals and testing their processing. The idea is if such technologies can be proven, then space exploration architectures would begin to incorporate using lunar resources.
Spudis also has the idea of establishing small geophysical stations across the lunar surface. “Such a package would include a seismometer (to monitor and measure moonquakes), a heat flow probe (to take the Moon’s temperature) and other instruments, such as a magnetometer and a laser reflector.”
The sticking point is how to pay for it. NASA is not likely to be in the position to foot the bill, no matter whether the commercial partners come up with a cheap enough package, absent a change in policy. It is questionable that such a venture could be made to pay for itself absent an infusion of government cash. Still, a public/private return to the Moon, starting with small landers, is not a bad thing for the next president and next NASA administrator to consider.