A NASA Rover Is Catching A Private Ride To The Moon

9:35 minutes

a cgi image of a boxy rover on the moon with a flashlight
An artist’s impression of NASA’s Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER). Credit: NASA

Last week, NASA announced that it had signed a $199.5 million contract with the private company Astrobotic to deliver NASA’s VIPER rover to the moon in 2023. The company will be responsible for the rover for getting the rover from Earth into space, up until the moment the rover rolls onto the lunar surface near the moon’s south pole. The rover is designed to explore for water and other resources—especially the large stores of water ice that scientists suspect may be frozen in lunar polar regions.

The golf-cart-sized rover will ride Astrobotic’s lander named “Griffin.” The lander will be a single-stage spacecraft—once Griffin is launched via a commercial rocket service, the craft will detach and proceed to the moon in one unit, rather than the multiple modules approach used by the Apollo program. As soon as next year, Astrobotic plans to launch ‘Peregrine,’ a smaller version of the lander—with the larger Griffin lander slated for 2023.

Astrobotic CEO John Thornton says that the company is just a delivery service for NASA’s science mission, but they are eagerly awaiting the data from the VIPER rover. If water does exist in an easily-recoverable form on the lunar surface, it could be potentially useful for rocket propellant, or other commercial uses. 

Thornton joins Ira to talk about the challenges of building a new lunar lander, and the increasing involvement of commercial industry in the U.S. space program.

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Segment Guests

John Thornton

John Thornton is the CEO of Astrobotic in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: NASA wants to go prospecting for water on the moon. And last week, the space agency announced that it had awarded a contract to a private company to deliver a NASA Rover called Viper to search the south pole of the moon for water ice. The price tag? Just under $200 million dollars.

The company, Astrobotic, aims to provide end-to-end delivery of a golf cart-sized Rover in 2023. It’s part of a program called the NASA commercial lunar payload services program, private companies delivering stuff to the moon. And Astrobotic has plenty of plans to deliver all kinds of stuff to the lunar surface. Joining me now to talk about the mission and the commercial space industry is John Thornton, CEO of Astrobotic, based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Welcome to Science Friday.

JOHN THORNTON: Oh, thank you, Ira. Good to be here.

IRA FLATOW: John, your contract with NASA involves end-to-end delivery of their Rover Viper. What do you mean by end-to-end delivery?

JOHN THORNTON: That’s right. For our lander delivery service to go to the moon, what we do is we provide literally end-to-end, and in our case, it’s kind of like the shipping model, like a DHL delivery truck. We accept a package from NASA. In this case, it’s a large Rover. And then we deliver that all the way to the surface of the moon.

So the way that works on our side, behind the scenes, is we go and buy a launch vehicle. We build a spacecraft. In this case, a lander that goes on top of that launch vehicle. And then that lander gets launched up into space, thrown towards the moon.

And then our job is to do trajectory correction maneuvers along the way to make sure that we’re lined up. We slow down when we get to lunar orbit. And then we just slow down again to lower that orbit and slow down one last time for terminal descent, for a soft landing down on the surface. And at that point, we operate payloads and deploy the payloads.

IRA FLATOW: So your job is to bring payloads to the moon without having to actually use NASA in between except for maybe renting their launch site?

JOHN THORNTON: That’s correct. And even the launch site we don’t need to rent from NASA. The commercial launch providers already have their own launch pads. So it’s completely without NASA. But of course, it is for NASA and funded by NASA.

IRA FLATOW: So you go out and you hire a rocket booster maker. You send out bids. They give you the booster.

You put your own payload in it. And off it goes. Once it leaves the booster, it’s your baby to fly to the moon.

JOHN THORNTON: That’s right. So from there, we are controlling our lander and the crews, and ultimately, the landing and also surface operations all from our mission control in the north side in Pittsburgh.

IRA FLATOW: And what’s the business model there? You say you want to bring stuff to the moon, stuff from everybody.

JOHN THORNTON: That’s right. Our goal as a company is to make the moon accessible to the world. And for us, that means not just space agencies, like NASA, and even other space agencies we have on our first mission, like the Mexican space agency. We really want to make it also possible for universities and even individuals to fly things up to the surface of the moon.

We have a program called DHL Moon Box, for example, that does just that. For a few hundred dollars, folks can send small mementos up to the surface of the moon. So we have photos of families. We have inscriptions on metal.

We have folks that even sent up some hair from a family pet that had passed. So really, whatever story individually that you want to have connected to the moon for all time can now be done. We can bring mementos up there and we can store them in a time capsule.

IRA FLATOW: This program has been quietly flying under the radar. I think many of us have never heard about this before.

JOHN THORNTON: Yeah, it’s a funny secret. It’s not intentional. We have been trying to get out there as much as we can.

We recently bought a building in Pittsburgh. And we’ve got about 74 employees. And we’re going to be adding to that.

So we hope that Pittsburgh and the whole region will follow along with our return to the moon, leading America back to the moon, in fact. And these first commercial deliveries are going to be major, major historic moments. And what’s going to be extremely exciting is all this picture and video coming back from the surface of the moon will all be processed in Pittsburgh and then put out for folks around the world to be watching.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk a bit about the details of the mission to extract water from the polar regions of the moon. Why is that so important?

JOHN THORNTON: Yeah. NASA is sending a Rover called Viper to the pole of the moon. And the goal there is to extract water. So what it wants to do is go to the spots where permanently shadowed areas that are super, super cold are likely sources of water.

And the idea with the Viper Rover is to send a drill down into the subsurface parts of these permanently shadowed areas, find out if there is ice stored there, what quantity, what composition, what’s it attached to. So ultimately, eventually, send subsequent missions to potentially extract that water and turn it into rocket fuel. Water you can split. Oxygen and hydrogen, that’s the same fuel that powered the shuttle.

So if we can harness rocket fuel from the moon, that would be the first time that we’re using resources from another planetary body for our own purposes. And that is a huge advancement for our species in space and ultimately, the development and exploration of space.

IRA FLATOW: And so you have a drill on board? Or NASA has a drill on board that I understand that you helped pioneer back when you were at Carnegie Mellon?

JOHN THORNTON: That’s right. Yeah. It’s a really fun, full circle story. So 13 years ago, before we started the company, in fact, I built a Rover with Red Whittaker of Carnegie Mellon, where it was a Rover that was a concept Rover. To put a drill on a Rover, drive it to potentially drill for water at the poles of the moon.

And now, 13 years later, that same drill and the same technology– evolved, of course– is now going to be sent to the surface of the moon. And it’s really a great honor, 13 years later, to be a part of that and amazing that NASA gave us $200 million to make that happen. And we’re just so excited, thrilled, and honored to be a part of that. And personally, it’s a big one for me.

IRA FLATOW: Just a quick note. I’m Ira Flatow. And this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios, talking with John Thornton, CEO of Astrobotic, a commercial space services company based in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, which is seeking to send stuff to the moon.

$200 million is, for those of us who follow these kinds of things, pretty cheap for a mission to the moon. How are you able to pull that off?

JOHN THORNTON: That’s right. Commercial, affordable access to the moon is our goal. $200 million is relatively cheap for a science mission and a planetary mission of this type. The way we’re able to do that is we use commercial launch first. And that has a lot of efficiencies in it.

And then, for us as a company, we are built as a commercial company first. So that means efficiencies from costs, looking at acquisitions, and what a buy in house. We have a risk profile that’s associated with a commercial approach.

We aren’t trying to innovate technology just to innovate technology. We’re really trying to find the lowest cost, highest performance sweet spot for operating our business. And that provides a new paradigm that is quite cost competitive. And that’s really important for NASA, because that frees up their resources to do the bigger and harder things in space.

IRA FLATOW: So you have all these missions going before you send NASA’s Viper to the moon surface?

JOHN THORNTON: That’s correct. Our first mission flies next year. It’s a lander called Peregrine. And it delivers about 90 kilograms of payload to the surface of the moon. And that’s a mixture of science instruments from NASA and commercial payloads from around the world, as well as other space agencies. That mission alone will probably triple the number of nations that have ever, ever operated payloads on the surface of the moon.

And then the following year, in 2022, we actually have a Rover going on someone else’s lander that will fly up to the surface. That’s a Rover to demonstrate autonomy. And that’s an important aspect for the development of moon and other planetary destinations. And then, of course, this new mission that we just got last week is going to go at the end of 2023.

IRA FLATOW: So what is this Rover going to do, this other mission?

JOHN THORNTON: So the mission in between our lander programs, the 2022 mission, this is an autonomous Rover called Moon Ranger. And the idea there is to demonstrate the autonomy on the moon so that we can have the capability to drive around the moon without direct communication back to Earth. And that’s very important. Because there are communication blind spots at the moon, especially at the poles where potentially you could drop signal from Earth. And you need to be able to re-establish that communication back to Earth.

IRA FLATOW: And who is picking up the tab on that one?

JOHN THORNTON: So that one is a NASA-funded payload that we are developing. And then one of our competitors is flying that to the surface of the moon on another commercial lunar payload services contract.

IRA FLATOW: Do you foresee the price coming down even cheaper than $200 million dollars, as you ramp up production?

JOHN THORNTON: We hope so. A big driver for our cost is launch cost. So we hope to see launch cost continue to come down, as well. So I think, in concert, we do hope to make it even more and more affordable over time.

IRA FLATOW: Well, we wish you good luck. And we’ll be watching closely. Thank you for taking time to be with us.

JOHN THORNTON: Well, thank you, Ira. And thanks for telling our story and letting me be on today. Appreciate it.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. John Thornton is CEO of Astrobotic, a commercial space services company based in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania.

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As Science Friday’s director and senior producer, Charles Bergquist channels the chaos of a live production studio into something sounding like a radio program. Favorite topics include planetary sciences, chemistry, materials, and shiny things with blinking lights.

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Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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