Friday, May 11, 2007

What is up with the Lunar Robotic Program?

In the beginning, the plan was to go to the Moon, first with robots, then with people. An extensive precursor program (the Robotic Lunar Exploration Program, or RLEP - pronounced R-Lep) was planned following the model put forth by the Apollo program with it's Lunar Orbiter and Ranger missions. There was to be first an orbiter - the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), which is on track and should launch in 2008 - followed by a lander, probably to a polar location, maybe even a permanently shadowed region, followed by another orbiter, then another lander.

Then people started doing the math, and realized we couldn't afford all that and it was pared down to the LRO and 1 lander. The program's named was also changed for no apparent reason from RLEP, to the Lunar Precursor and Robotic Program (LPRP) and the program office was moved to Marshall (from Ames, and before that Goddard).

Along the way, cost estimates for the lander started to balloon from an initial New Frontier's Class mission to something in the several billion dollar range from the rumors I heard. So the lander was scrapped all together and we were told it was not needed, as Scott Horowitz, NASA's exploration chief, made perfectly clear at the Lunar Science Meeting in Tempe a couple months ago when he said that all he really needs is "a damn good map," which LRO will provide.

With no "program" to speak of, the LPRP program office at Marshall was to be shut down and management of LRO (and it's tag-along package LCROSS) was to be moved to HQs. But then Congress got involved, or specifically Sen Shelby (R-Al), who wanted to keep a little piece of the Moon in his backyard and the 32 jobs that go with it (although in reality, none of those people would have been laid off, just reassigned to other duties). Sen Shelby was apparently able to convince Sen. Mikulski (D-Md.) and Rep. Mollohan (D-W.Va.), who respectively chair the Senate and House appropriations panels with NASA oversight, that this was important and last month they wrote a letter to Administrator Griffin proclaiming their displeasure over the closing of the Marshall office and directed $20M "be provided to continue planning for a potential LPRP mission during the remainder of the year." (See the recent article in Science.)

Mr Griffin response reiterated the "all we need is a damn good map" mantra:

“I do not need a robotic lander to reduce risks for the human landings,” Griffin said. “Everybody who has carefully looked at that has said you don’t need it.”

Griffin said such a mission, while “it would be nice to have,” is not necessary. “Right now, the budget is such that I have to focus on what’s necessary,” he said, adding that the decision to cancel the lander was not taken lightly.

“The lander wasn’t the first thing I removed from the program. It was the last thing,” he said.

It's not immediately clear how NASA will respond to the congressional directive, or more importantly, what they are going to do with that $20M, since there is no sign that they are going to change their mind about sending a lander.

I have a few problems with this situation.

First of all, I'd really like to see a lander. For science reasons obviously, but also because I'm not convinced we know enough about the conditions at the poles to start putting up a permanent base there. In particular, the electrostatic conditions in a place like the rim of Shackleton crater (the currently favored site) which is always near the terminator, may make life very hard to deal with for the astronauts and their equipment, or maybe it will be fine, but we don't really know and a lander could definitely help us find out. There are many other unknowns and risks that a lander could help us reduce, biological experiments on the reactivity of the soil and the radiation environment, for example. Deciding whether these things are "necessary" or just "useful" is above my pay grade, as they say, but if it were up to me, I would say necessary.

Secondly, I think it's ridiculous that Congress is trying to dictate to NASA how it should be run at this level. Oversight is one thing, I am a firm believer in oversight, but this is not oversight, it's practically an earmark. NASA so strapped for cash right now that we are darn near begging in the streets, and now they are going to have to cough up $20M for a project that is never going to go anywhere.

I realize that many of you are probably thinking about now that my problem #2 contradicts my problem #1 - I want NASA to fund the stupid lander, but I'm mad at Congress for forcing them to keep the program office open. What I really want is for Congress to fund NASA at an appropriate level for them to accomplish all the things that Congress has asked them to do and to let NASA figure out the best way to do it. And I want NASA to stop basing their decisions on whether or not we can afford it and instead decide the best course of action and do it, even if it takes a little longer. NASA often uses the phrase "pay-as-you-go" but they don't believe it. Of course, Congress keeps putting timetables on things (Ahh, Congress and their timetables), like phase-out of the shuttle and when the CEV has to be ready that force NASA's hand. So they are both in my doghouse.

Going to the Moon on a budget is hard, but going to the Moon unprepared will be disastrous.

1 comment:

Joe said...

Sarah - I didn't know Griffin when he was at APL, but I worked with several people who did. Seems like if he's forced to choose (forced by Congress?) between manned space flight and robotic missions, he'll choose robotic about 75% of the time. My question with him, and with Dan Goldin before him was; how much choice does he really have?
Seems like congress has been micro-managing NASA since the last Apollo mission. It's been - disheartening.
joe -