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Scientists, Engineers Say Lunar Rover Axed at NASA, Ask Bridenstine to Reinstate It


The binocular stereo vision and LED lights are shown on the Resource Prospector 2015 (RP15) Rover Prototype at the Johnson Space Center on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017, in Houston. The rover is designed to drill into the moon's crust in search of water.

 

NASA's much-anticipated moon rover appears to have been canceled just three days before the space agency's new administrator praised plans to "return America to the surface of the Moon."

In a letter to NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine on Thursday, a group of lunar scientists and engineers reported that they had learned the Resource Prospector project had been canceled April 23 -- the same day Bridenstine was sworn in as administrator.

"The information we received was the Resource Prospector project team were told that they should close out their work by the end of May. We took this to mean cancellation," said Clive Neal, emeritus chairman of the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group, which was originally chartered by NASA and facilitates better communication between government agencies, commercial businesses and others that deal with the moon.

"The cancellation of RP could be viewed as NASA not being serious about a return to the lunar surface," the group's letter stated.

In a tweet on Thursday, Bridenstine said, "Great 3rd day on the job with the @NASA family. Excited to get to work on our plan to sustainably return America to the surface of the moon starting with an aggressive robotic program."

NASA issued a statement late Friday neither confirming nor denying that the program had been shuttered.

"NASA is developing an exploration strategy to meet the agency's expanded lunar exploration goals," according to the statement posted on the website. "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."

It continued, "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 Director 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."

Bridenstine issued a similar statement.

"We're committed to lunar exploration @NASA," he tweeted. "Resource Prospector instruments will go forward in an expanded lunar surface campaign. More landers. More science. More exploration. More prospectors. More commercial partners."

He ended, "Ad astra!" - a Latin phrase meaning "to the stars."

The $250 million rover was being built to learn more about the availability of water on the moon. Much of the work being done on the mission, slated to fly in 2022 or 2023, was being done at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

But officials there and at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., did not respond to repeated requests for confirmation.

News of the apparent cancellation comes as the space agency, with the support of President Donald Trump, pushes for the U.S. to return to the moon as a stepping stone to Mars.

That push started last year, when Trump revived the defunct National Space Council and, later, signed Space Policy Directive-1 urging NASA to return Americans to the moon.

He followed that directive up with a $19.9 billion NASA budget proposal for the coming fiscal year that tasks NASA with launching the first flight without a crew for Orion -- the spacecraft meant to take humans to Mars -- by 2022, following by a launch of Americans around the moon in 2023.

NASA officials hope to launch the uncrewed flight in December 2019, but that will likely slip to June 2020 in part because of construction delays for the rocket that will carry Orion into space.

Centers around the country, including Johnson, already are working diligently to reach these deadlines.

Additionally, Trump's proposal would allow the agency to begin working on the foundation of a Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, saying it would "give us a strategic presence in the lunar vicinity that will drive our activity with commercial and international partners and help us further explore the moon and its resources and translate that experience toward human missions to Mars."

The apparent cancellation of Resource Prospector is an unexpected move -- and not a good sign for the future of moon exploration, Neal said.

"RP would be a pathfinder for NASA's contribution to the space economy ... 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," the letter continued.

Neal said he has not yet heard from Bridenstine's office, and doesn't expect to for a few weeks, if at all.

Although Bridenstine is new to the job, Neal said the group felt "he needed to know about it sooner rather than later."

— Alex Stuckey, Houston Chronicle

Published originally:
Houston Chronicle (April 27, 2018)