A brief history of Resource Prospector, NASA's cancelled lunar mission
In case you haven't heard, NASA canceled Resource Prospector, a rover that would have mined water ice in permanently shadowed regions on the Moon. Because NASA's exploration program is now focused on sending humans to the lunar surface, canceling Resource Prospector—the only Moon-related mission in development—seemed like a strange move.
Strange move or not, there's an irony here: Resource Prospector got its start during the George W. Bush administration, when NASA's goal was landing on the Moon! The mission managed to survive the Obama administration's Journey to Mars era—only to be axed once the Moon came back into play under President Trump.
So what, exactly, happened? Here's a brief history of Resource Prospector, from its origins to new information NASA just released today.
NASA / JSC
Resource Prospector is an Obama administration-era NASA concept rover to explore the Moon's permanently shadowed craters.
In 2004, President George W. Bush announces the Vision for Space Exploration, which calls for humans to return to the Moon. Though the most visible part of that initiative is Constellation, the VSE also leads to the Lunar Precursor and Robotic Program, a series of robotic reconnaissance missions. Three missions eventually come from that program: the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS), and the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE).
LCROSS helps confirm the presence of water ice in the Moon's permanently shadowed craters. NASA then begins conceptualizing an instrument package that would mine water ice in those craters and convert it to propellant, water and air. In 2010, the Obama administration pivots from the Moon to Mars, but work on the instrument package continues, eventually becoming the Regolith and Environmental Science and Oxygen and Lunar Volatiles Extraction project, or RESOLVE.
NASA morphs RESOLVE into a new mission called Resource Prospector, which consists of the mining instruments, a lander, and a rover. The Resource Prospector budget is listed as $250 million, but that only includes the instruments and a launch vehicle. There are no funds allocated for a lander or rover; for those, NASA turns to Japan and Canada, respectively.
NASA Ames manages the project, which has 68 full-time employees. Because NASA's goal is no longer the Moon, Resource Prospector is pitched as having direct applications for resource utilization on Mars.
NASA also launches the Lunar CATALYST initiative to encourage commercial partners to develop small lunar landers. Three companies—Moon Express, Astrobotic, and Masten—sign unfunded Space Act Agreements to collaborate with NASA on landers.
With NASA focused solely on Mars, there is little support for making Resource Prospector a reality, causing Japan and Canada to eventually back out. NASA decides to build its own rover, RP15. RP15 gets dubbed a "mission-in-a-year" because JSC engineers build the prototype in 12 months and take it out for field tests.
The Planetary Society visits JSC. In the same building that has a full-scale mockup of the International Space Station for astronaut practice, we spot RP15 hanging out with a hodge-podge of other projects, including pressurized lunar rovers from the Constellation program, the Modular Robotic Vehicle, and Robonaut.
Jason Davis / The Planetary Society
RP15 in 2015
RP15, a Resource Prospector engineering prototype, at Johnson Space Center.
A plan emerges to have one of the Lunar CATALYST partners deliver Resource Prospector to the lunar surface.
The Trump administration pivots NASA back to the Moon.
Feb. 12, 2018
The new NASA budget introduces two lunar surface initiatives: Advanced Cislunar and Surface Capabilities (ACSC) and Lunar Discovery and Exploration. ACSC is part of the agency’s human spaceflight division, while Lunar Discovery and Exploration will be managed by the planetary science division. The two initiatives will help commercial partners develop and test cheap lunar landing technologies; some early payload capacities mentioned in the budget are 200, and then 500 kilograms. Resource Prospector would require the 500-kilogram variant.
From there, NASA would scale up to 5,000 or 6,000-kilogram payloads, which would be large enough to handle a crewed lander.
But the budget request also cancels Resource Prospector, with a pledge to move the mining instruments to future landers under the Lunar Discovery and Exploration program.
April 26, 2018
LEAG, the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group (LEAG), sends a letter to new NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine protesting the Resource Prospector cancellation, arguing the mission is vital to NASA's lunar exploration goals. The letter says the mission could be ready to fly by 2022, and a later comment by Moon Express states the company's future 500-kilogram lander would be ready in time to support that.
April 27, 2018
NASA re-iterates that the Resource Prospector instruments will be flown on future landers under its new lunar surface initiatives, in both an update to the Resource Prospector website and a tweet by Jim Bridenstine.
Resource Prospector advocates argue that by transitioning the instruments from a single rover to multiple landers, NASA is unnecessarily delaying the project, and losing the key benefit of being able to visit multiple sites.
May 3, 2018
NASA further defends the cancellation by saying Resource Prospector was a "one-time effort to explore a specific location on the Moon, and as designed, now is too limited in scope for the agency's expanded lunar exploration focus." Furthermore, "NASA’s return to the Moon will include many missions to locate, extract and process elements across bigger areas of the lunar surface."
In an email replying to questions about costs, a NASA spokesperson tells me the agency spent $22 million on RESOLVE, and $80 million on Resource Prospector. There was no cost estimate for getting Resource Prospector ready for a 2022 launch; the mission had yet to complete its preliminary design review. It's unlikely Resource Prospector would have met its original $250 million budget: even a Falcon 9 launch would likely cost $90 million or more, based on TESS and DSCOVR costs. That would leave just $80 million left to build the flight rover and instruments, and pay for a lander.