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Op-Ed: Can We Arrest the Fall of CLPS?

Astrobotic’s Peregrine, Intuitive Machine’s Nova-C and OrbitBeyond’s Z-01 on display after the initial CLPS announcement.
Credit: NASA

As humankind prepares to go back to the Moon as part of the Artemis Program and beyond, there lies a player that plays an unequivocally important role in exploration: robots. For as long as space agencies have turned their eyes skyward in the hopes of uncovering truths about our universe, robotic explorers have been there — helping to guide us in our quest for discovery and understanding. Robotic explorers have laid out the groundwork, selected the targets, and pushed the limits of what we as humans can do and inspired millions across the globe with their dramatic imagery and groundbreaking discoveries. Now, in the dawn of the Artemis era, robotic missions play a crucial role once more. Robotic missions as part of the Commercial Lunar Payloads Services initiative, or CLPS, will deliver a wide range of cargo to the lunar surface, and assist human explorers as humankind prepares to return to the moon to stay. However, even with a good majority of the groundwork laid, there exist flaws that threaten to derail the whole plan. Failure of government oversight, commercial inexperience with lunar missions, and the false belief that the market will solve its own problems throws a potentially massive wrench in NASA’s vision for sustainable exploration. 

NASA and their international partners in the last 20 years have quietly laid the groundwork for human missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond, while operating under tight constraints of budget and political will. Robotic missions such as the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, twin Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, and more have continued to push the boundaries of what is possible, and prepare us for the next step by supporting human spaceflight goals. Curiosity and Perseverance, the two nuclear powered rovers on Mars that as of writing remain operational, were designed with explicit human exploration objectives in mind: look for sites of interest and help characterize the environment. LRO, in orbit of the moon since 2009, was born not out of a need for Artemis, but to a distant ancestor, the ill-fated Constellation program. Slated to be a bold, American return to the moon, Constellation fell to the whims of budget cuts and program mismanagement, and the program was unceremoniously scrapped at the start of the Obama administration. LRO, having been in place imaging the moon, survived, and continued to perform studies of the lunar surface to this day, looking for ideal landing sites should a program gain the momentum to get there. There were other survivors of this drastic cut, which ultimately found themselves as integral parts of the Artemis program. Lockheed Martin’s Orion Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle, NASA’s deep space capsule, managed to survive – taking a new shape with its European Service Module built by Airbus. The Space Launch System, a rocket born of heritage components from the Space Shuttle, successfully completed its first flight as part of the Artemis I mission, and production is ramping up towards our return to the moon. These survivors have formed for themselves the backbone of an incredibly robust program, with bold ambitions for a brighter future. It is, to say the least, a very exciting time to watch spaceflight unfold.

NASA’s Space Launch System rockets skyward, carrying Orion as part of Artemis I
Credit: David Diebold

In this new Artemis era, it is crucial to assess where robotics play a role. The answer to this, however, has been complicated by recent developments across the industry. A lot has changed since the age of Apollo, for a new player has entered the fold: commercial space. No longer is it just the work of governments to deliver vital resources and prospectors to the lunar surface, for private enterprise has taken an incredibly active role. And for many industry analysts, this creates an air of unease. Commercial companies are hard at work developing a fleet of spacecraft to enable long term exploration of the moon with tugs, refueling spacecraft and lunar landers. This, of course, is dogged with its own difficulties: lack of oversight, inconsistent workplace culture and more. But in order to stay on the moon, and not just leave behind footprints like the Apollo program, a fleet of robotic missions must operate in tandem with these human rated elements to support astronauts and perform key science operations. One of the key goals of Artemis is the establishment of a long term presence on the moon through the foundation of a Base Camp, and to demonstrate technologies required to eventually take us to Mars on each mission. This, in turn, requires technology to be in place well ahead of the crew’s arrival, in an approach that NASA and the Artemis partners are calling pre-staging. While some technology demos and components will be delivered by the crew, many of these payloads are to be delivered to the lunar surface by a new program, the Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative, or CLPS (pronounced “clips”). These missions differ greatly from previous NASA contracts in that missions are mostly hands off, with little to no oversight from the Administration, and are entirely outsourced. To date, 8 landing missions have been contracted, with several landers being offered from a variety of size classes, with more on the way. Eventually, the lander fleet will consist of vehicles that can land a few hundred kilograms, to multi-ton behemoths which could potentially preposition habitats or other vital human rated systems. CLPS aims to deliver in a variety of ways, by outsourcing the service to commercial providers and ensuring that no one company has a monopoly. Astrobotic’s Peregrine, currently projected to be the first CLPS, is projected to launch on ULA’s Vulcan rocket on December 24, 2023. Intuitive Machine’s Nova-C, on a mission  known as IM-1, is slated to debut on January 12, 2024. Both vehicles represent the first steps in demonstrating CLPS capability.

CLPS missions at their core are not a guarantee for success, unlike previous missions and programs conducted by NASA which operate on the principle of encouraging as successful a mission as possible. Mission management has repeatedly stressed that some vehicles “will not make it to the surface”, implying a willing acceptance of failure on the part of the program. Numbers discussed at a variety of round tables have included a 30–50% success rate, something that an agency like NASA would deem unacceptable for an in-house mission. It is worth noting too that the “30%-50% will make it” statement addresses not only how the landers will perform when they are in space, rather, that 50% of the contracts will result in missions that actually launch. At the time of writing one CLPS provider, MASTEN Space Systems, has already folded and one, Japan’s iSpace, has crashed into the lunar surface. 

A render of NASA’s VIPER rover, set to be delivered to the Lunar surface via CLPS lander.
Credit: NASA

This attitude carries even further, with high priority payloads being the only way in which NASA oversight is coupled to a mission. For non-NASA missions, CLPS providers are allowed and even encouraged to proceed largely on their own with little industry oversight from government agencies. Under the current model, NASA will only directly work with a lander provider if the payload is of significant importance with zero additional expense. One of these is the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover or VIPER, a lunar rover targeting launch in 2024. With VIPER, the agency hopes to characterize water ice deposits in the quest to utilize the moon’s resources, enabling astronauts to live off the land. Should the significantly reduced oversight granted through the CLPS program miss a crucial element, NASA risks losing a 443 million dollar mission. Without it, the Artemis program would be left flying blind in its quest to locate water ice on the moon and further enable a sustainable return. 

iSpace, a participant in CLPS, watches as their lunar lander heads for the surface. The lander would collide with the moon soon after.
Credit: iSpace Webcast

CLPS has another vulnerability coupled directly to commercial enterprise: the whims of the market. When the Japanese company iSpace lost their Hakuto-R mission after impact with the lunar surface on April 25, 2023, their stock value fell by 50%, endangering the company’s financials. MASTEN Space Systems, one of the companies contracted by NASA in the initial CLPS bid, no longer exists, having filed for bankruptcy and been absorbed into Astrobotic. While hardware from MASTEN has found a home at Astrobotic, and iSpace produced the capital to fly again, this is far from the only outcome to a problematic situation. NASA’s Office of the Inspector General has commented on the status of the program as a whole, stating: “Although required by NASA policy, the first two awards under CLPS Task Order 2 have no safety and mission assurance plans. NASA has stated that the nature of the CLPS Task Order 2 is akin to a delivery by common carrier, similar to an express cargo service, and therefore does not require a PQASP or even a risk assessment.” NASA’s CLPS program now looks to stand alongside Ranger in its fundamental mismanagement of Lunar exploration — a buckshot parallel that reeks of complacency, and further delays the transition from Flags and Footprints to Sustainable Presence.

Cargo Dragon performs an orbital rendezvous with ISS during COTS-Demo-2, prior to beginning regular ISS operations.
Credit: NASA

To understand how the industry has arrived at this point, one has to look back at the murky water that is the transition from government-only spaceflight to the government-commercial hybrid model that seems to have emerged from the last 20 years of spaceflight. Companies such as SpaceX and Orbital Sciences (now Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems) quickly impressed NASA leadership with their execution of the Commercial Resupply Services Program, a consistent stream of ships delivering payloads to the International Space Station, which lacked domestic cargo capabilities in the wake of Shuttle. This program was a resounding success, and ensured that the ISS remained a flagship laboratory for international science. In the reordering from Constellation, the Commercial Crew program was spun up to ensure US crew access to space, eventually ending reliance on the Russian Soyuz. This program as a whole ended up years behind schedule; SpaceX only flew their first crew in 2020, and Boeing has yet to fly a crewed test flight as of November 2023, coupled with numerous safety reviews that took place throughout the 13 year program. But, the mantra of “commercial = less work for us” stuck, and has placed NASA and their partner agencies in the hands of corporations that do not always align with the mission statement of the contractor agency, and without critical oversight into how programs are progressing. On the governmental side, NASA has fundamentally abandoned their role as a leader and industry shepherd, failing to pass down crucial lessons learned on project management and mission assurance. This leads us to the quasi commercial state the space program finds itself in now, with the Human Landing System contract seemingly unsteady, Gateway Resupply as a big unknown, and the CLPS program’s general attitude threatening to compromise safety in favor of supporting a market that does not yet exist.

Upon closer inspection, however, it goes beyond an agency culture that has shifted so fundamentally — it represents an overall air of disillusion with the complexities of a robust lunar program. The Artemis Program, as a whole, is a good one; it enables our return to the moon in a way that allows humankind to establish a sustained presence there. It energizes both the public and private sector to pursue noble and exciting scientific goals. However, the core components of NASA’s mission statement seem to be absent in certain aspects of the program management. NASA, in many ways, has lost sight of one of their founding principles. For as long as the agency has existed, technologies developed both entirely in house and through public private partnerships have been under the direction of the agency and with close guidance. NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Council for Aeronautics, set the standard for modern wing designs that have remained a staple in the design and construction of commercial airliners – one of the lasting legacies of the aeronautics program in modern everyday life. In the case of CLPS, this attitude has been entirely thrown out the window in favor of a hyper-commercial school of thought. By separating themselves from the industry that bolsters them, NASA runs the risk of becoming a management agency – not one that invests in the success of its missions. The caustic creep of a commercial-only mindset within NASA comes at the cost of mission assurance: a view that safety, oversight and solid design no longer equates success. Those who subscribe to this model wish for vital programs to be hands off – all other considerations secondary.

LExSO, one of the potential customers for a revised, higher oversight CLPS.
Credit: NASA

CLPS is a program that could still be saved, and the wave of hyper commercialization arrested. One unique technical aspect of CLPS is the ability to deliver payloads to a variety of destinations in space, something that could be leveraged in as a requirement before a landing site is ultimately selected on a later mission. These kinds of environments will absolutely put the systems through their paces, and enable the delivery of a variety of payloads into cislunar space — another requirement for Artemis operations, before committing to a landing. One immediate priority item could be the delivery of the Lunar Exploration Science Orbiter (LExSO), a proposed replacement for the intrepid LRO, coming up on nearly 15 years in orbit of the moon. An early CLPS mission could use a modified lander bus to deliver LExSO to lunar orbit, ensuring imaging and relay coverage for lunar explorers – granted this new mission and delivery system have extensive oversight from NASA and any other interested partner agencies. It was recently announced that Lunar Pathfinder, a European communications demonstration mission, will be utilizing a rideshare with a Firefly Aerospace CLPS lander, Blue Ghost— a capability that could greatly improve the flow of Artemis operations. In terms of safety and mission assurance, a drastic rework of how NASA evaluates their commercial lander entrants could be undertaken. In the aerospace industry, the AS9100 Audit System acts as a ranking structure which ensures that an organization meets the requirements to operate at a certain standard. A commercial vehicle class standard could potentially inform agencies on a company’s abilities to deliver cargo to different destinations, while enabling and fostering growth and experience through collaboration with the public sector. Companies aiming to put payloads on the surface could potentially be subject to a ranking system based on performance of flights and internal safety review — much as launch providers for NASA missions are ranked today under the Launch Service Providers program.

At its core, CLPS may have its issues, but the mission is clear: ensure payload delivery to the Lunar surface in one form or another. It is a program that is not explicitly destined to fail, however, it stands on rocky ground in terms of the frameworks that crafted it. In an ideal world, CLPS succeeds as a program that advances international science and our return to the moon to stay. There was an early air of skepticism about Commercial Cargo, which has now had more than 40 flights, and many revel in the fact that this program has survived two launch failures with clever workarounds. The teams on the first CLPS missions are dotting their Is and crossing their Ts in preparation for the start of this new era of exploration. It is of some comfort to interact with and get to know people across the industry who have worked on a wide range of aspects of this new and exciting program. CLPS, as it has positioned itself now, is as vital to the success of Artemis as the Rangers, Surveyors and Lunar Orbiters of the Apollo era were. Entrusting these landers in their current management style, however, seems like a dangerous game. If we are to pursue these programs, and get humans and robots working together on the moon, the attitude with which we execute these missions must fundamentally change. The notion that the industry should be decoupled from oversight must change, and government oversight must be allowed back at the table. Industry, in turn, should be more open to collaboration – no longer seeing government oversight as a hindrance to progress. We are already seeing such a policy take shape, with Gateway’s handover to the Glenn Research Center for additional checks and development work instead of the commercial only approach initially proposed. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory was dragged through Congress in hearing after hearing after losing three Mars missions in the 90s, and one would hope to see a similar course of action if CLPS produces similar results. If there is failure, we had better be ready to hold parties accountable for failing to deliver, a trend in aerospace that seems not to be the standard course of action these days. If we are to arrest the fall, and truly ensure mission success for future generations of explorers, then NASA and industry leaders must not turn their backs on the seemingly mundane and support all of those who wish to participate in this new lunar age through collaboration and oversight. 

Godspeed you brave little explorers, and may lessons learned reveal the path forward for us all.

Edited by Beverly Casillas and Emily B

CORRECTION: Edited to reflect new launch dates for Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines missions.

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