Planetary Radio • Mar 01, 2024

Space Policy Edition: The ahistorical era of commercial lunar exploration

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Matthew shindell nasm portrait

Matthew Shindell

Science historian and curator at the Smithsonian Institution

Casey dreier tps mars

Casey Dreier

Chief of Space Policy for The Planetary Society

The successful landing of IM-1 on the Moon ushered in a new era of commercial lunar exploration, one that has little to no historical precedent. The future, still highly uncertain, is rich with promise for what commercial payload deliveries can provide. There will be new and more frequent science opportunities, lower-cost access for national and non-state actors, and, potentially, a path to a sustainable presence on the lunar surface. Dr. Matt Shindell, science historian and curator of the planetary exploration collection at the Smithsonian Institution, joins the show to discuss the unique historical moment we find ourselves in, and how planetary exploration has evolved and could continue to evolve on and around the Moon.

Odysseus touchdown
Odysseus touchdown The Odysseus lander makes contact with the surface of the Moon, absorbing the impact with its landing strut while its engine continues to fire. Odysseus was built by Intuitive Machines as part of NASA's Commercial Lunar Payload Services program.Image: Intuitive Machines


Casey Dreier: Hello and welcome to the Space Policy Edition of Planetary Radio, the monthly show where we explore the politics and processes that enable space exploration. I'm Casey Dreier, the chief of Space Policy here at The Planetary Society. As I record this, we are only a few days into a brand new era of commercial space capability. Intuitive Machines, a publicly traded private company, is operating hardware on the lunar surface right now. This hardware landed successfully, barely, but it's landed successfully, a mix of private and public payloads that are now collecting data as we speak on the surface of the Moon. This is all thanks to a program called CLPS, Commercial Lunar Payload Services, sponsored by NASA, begun about six years ago. This program aims to bootstrap a new marketplace of lunar delivery companies that can provide ongoing services to NASA and private sector and others who may want to put things on the surface of the Moon. This whole endeavor is an experiment. I cannot emphasize this enough. This has never happened before, and we're still very early on in this experiment to see if the policy goals will work out beyond just this one successful landing. We've already seen another competing company, Astrobotic, lose its attempted landing payload Peregrine due to a malfunction before it even got to the Moon. Many other companies are years away from launching, and it's not even clear if many will end up even launching payloads to the Moon for NASA. But regardless, even if Intuitive Machines landing relied on pure luck and it flirted with a number of near disasters, it is still now on the surface of the Moon. Even if it did flop over sideways, it is still operating. This is the first time in my lifetime and many of your lifetimes that we have seen a US presence on the surface of the Moon. Is truly exciting. This is truly new, and what I think the big takeaway here is that we are in an a historical moment, something without precedent, something that we cannot actually look much to the past. But it can still tell us something about how we got here and potentially challenges or expectations to qualify where we go from here going forward. And so that's why I asked Dr. Matt Shindell to be our guest this month on the Space Policy Edition. He is a science historian, and he's actually the curator at the Smithsonian Institution, where he has literally the most amazing job where he is responsible for the museum's collection of planetary spacecraft instruments and other artifacts related to the exploration of the Solar System. What a cool idea. He recently published an article exploring some of the historical trends that led into NASA's Commercial Lunar Payload Program, particularly trends around in situ resource utilization, how Google XPRIZE and other unrelated NASA initiatives supported nascent companies like Astrobotic to really vy for landing and really placing this in the context of planetary exploration, the history of planetary science itself. Matt joins me to talk about this right now. Before Matt joins me to talk about this, however, I want to make one pitch to you. The Planetary Society, my organization, the organization that enables this show to exist is an independent member-supported organization. This work happens, all the work that we do, not just this show, but our outreach, our education, our projects, and our advocacy happen because of the members who are willing to join us or donate to our efforts. If you're not a member, please consider joining us at Membership start at only $4 a month. If you are a member already, first, thank you. You again literally make this happen, and if you can, consider increasing your membership level to support even more incredible work that we do to enable space science and exploration. Again, you can learn all about this at I hope you consider it, and thank you for listening to this message. Okay, without any further ado, let's talk with Matt Shindell on the history and motives going into NASA's Commercial Lunar Payload Services program. Matt Shindell, thank you so much for joining the Space Policy Edition this month. Before we go into this great article that you wrote for Quest Magazine, I can't help myself, you are the curator of the Smithsonian basically Spacecraft collection. Is that basically the right way to put this?

Matthew Shindell: Yeah. Mainly the robotic spacecraft that have gone to the Moon and to the planets, so not the human spacecraft and not necessarily the Earth-orbiting stuff, but anything that's kind of made its way to the Moon or to Mars or to the outer planets or whatever. That's the stuff that I've collected for the museum, or a lot of it was collected before I got there, but I've continued to try and build that collection.

Casey Dreier: I just want to say congratulations on scoring probably one of the best jobs on the planet. I feel pretty lucky here, working at The Planetary Society, but collecting robotics spacecraft and presenting it to the public sounds just like a fantastic opportunity. I have to use this opportunity. I will share with you my favorite piece in your collection, and it's a bit idiosyncratic, which is, it's at the Udvar-Hazy part of the museum, and in a small case, it's this little gold instrument. It's the tape recorder from Explorer 3, and you read the little plaque, and it says it is basically built by hand by this person George Ludwig at the University of Iowa in it must've been 1960 years, 1961. And so I'm from Iowa, I'm from Iowa City, and I grew up just a few blocks away from the Van Allen building at the campus, and the planetary connection of the University of Iowa is a really important part of my childhood growing up. And so to see that piece and just that handwritten piece, and I love this idea that George Ludwig was born in a house in, was it Tiffin, Iowa with no running water, and 25, 30 years later, he's building the first recording instruments to ever go in space. You would just not expect that unless for space enabling that kind of development to happen. I love that piece so much for what it represents about what space has done for people and also how it brings out this kind of workforce from the woodwork to just challenge these really complex ideas for people who never would've seen themselves doing.

Matthew Shindell: Yeah. And I actually spent two years living in Iowa City back in the early 2000s. I was actually, I think I was in Iowa when the year 2000 first began, and we had the whole Y2K scare and everything [inaudible 00:08:07]-

Casey Dreier: And you survived...

Matthew Shindell: ... a fun way.

Casey Dreier: ... you survived [inaudible 00:08:08].

Matthew Shindell: Yeah. Yeah. Back then, I was studying creative writing. I wasn't doing anything related to space flight, but I remember that Van Allen's story is very famous there in Iowa obviously. But as you mentioned back in the 1960s, these planetary scientists and space scientists were, as you said, coming out of the woodwork. There wasn't really these established disciplines of space science the way we have today, and a lot of folks who were working on other things kind of get pulled into this interdisciplinary field that starts to be established at that time as space technology is becoming more of a reality. And suddenly, physicists, who are working on other problems, start to take up space and geologists start to take up space, and chemists and everyone from all different disciplines starts to come together and coalesce into what we know today as planetary science. So it's like this really cool time in the history of space science and planetary science when everything's kind of up for grabs, and people are trying to figure out what their place is going to be in the exploration of the Solar System.

Casey Dreier: Yeah, because as you said, there was no defined meaning of what that even meant. It was being discovered in the process, and kind of this motley crew of idiosyncratic or ambitious or brilliant individuals coming into and seeing opportunity in this. I mean, this is one of your research areas actually, right, is the birth of planetary science and its creation as a field, particularly with planetary geology. And you have a nice article you can still access online that you wrote a few years ago, talking about the integration of field geology into planetary science. And I'm just always again struck by this is... planetary science is such a new discipline when we step back a little bit. I mean, for those of us alive now, it was most of our lives, but I always think about the Rolling Stones are about as old as planetary science, as a discipline, as a band. And that's-

Matthew Shindell: Yeah, that's true.

Casey Dreier: Right. And it's very technology-driven, and absent the technology of the post-war era and absent the capability of exploration, planetary science is just a subset of astronomy, right. You're just collecting photons and trying to look at planetary surfaces from a telescope of some sort or some very kind of electromagnetic wavelength. But here, you have the opportunity to apply all these other kind of Earth-based disciplines to other planets through this process and development of planetary science. Is that unique, or is that just kind of how post-war modern science is that it's all technology-driven and also, in a sense, new? You didn't have these pre-established aspects feeding into these other parts of sciences beyond planetary?

Matthew Shindell: Yeah, it's interesting because if you look at the emergence of planetary science and then also of that sort of constellation of disciplines that we now think of as the Earth sciences, both areas both get completely rearranged by that period in the Early Cold War where suddenly Earth science and planetary science, space science, these all become of national importance, right. They're not just enabled by the new technologies. They are sort of the fields in which these technologies have to operate, right, physically, space, oceans, atmospheres, et cetera. They all require the establishment of new bases of knowledge just so that the military, national security, other areas can operate in them. And so those technologies become significant. Those sciences receive a great deal more funding than they had before, and their sort of institutional organization changes as a result of all that. You have traditional university geology departments transforming into Earth and space science or Earth and planetary science departments based on the funding that's now available from places like the Atomic Energy Commission, NASA and the National Science Foundation and other funders as well. So yeah, you see it not just in space and planetary science but also in Earth science. And I think you also see it to a certain extent in other areas like biology and ecology, where you're also starting to see new technologies deployed in understanding those areas of science. So yeah, it's a little bit of a common Cold War story, but I think it's especially acute in planetary science since no one had access to planetary surfaces prior to the space age.

Casey Dreier: Yeah. I mean, that's one of the fundamental things that I still think about, this idea of exploratory science and how planetary science still gives you that, whereas, on Earth, there is, to some extent, particularly, I'd say, ocean and deep ocean areas. But exploratory science because the surface is so well mapped, even the oceans are rather well mapped these days. It's not that you can't learn new things. It's that you kind of know what you're going to learn. You have a directed hypothesis-driven approach to science, which, I think, is generally how people think science is done. But planetary science, to a large extent is still, I think, for the Uranus mission, which is now the top new flagship priority for planetary sciences after Mars Sample Return is basically, well, we fly by, we flow by once. We're not really sure what's going on there. I guess let's just send an orbiter there. And there's something really exciting and maybe generative about exploratory science as an opportunity to disrupt, I'd say, established theories and paradigms by its very definition because you're really testing them. That's again, I see one of the major benefits of planetary science and seems to have been since the beginning again because of this in the sense the cost of access to these data sets.

Matthew Shindell: Yeah, I think that's absolutely true, and I'm really looking forward to the missions into the outer Solar System. I'm really looking forward to Europa Clipper, for example, and finally getting a close look at one of the ocean worlds and seeing what's actually going on there underneath that ice crust. If we can penetrate that crust with the instruments that are on Europa Clipper, and I know the scientists are confident that they will be able to. So 2030, when that thing arrives, that's going to be really exciting. But yeah, there's also places like Uranus where we've only been there once and we flew by and we got the information from Voyager about Uranus, and astronomers have and planetary scientists have continued to study Uranus through the telescope, but getting that actual in situ data is incredibly valuable. And then, when you think about planets like Mars, where we've actually been multiple times, right. We've been to Mars with robots more times than we've been anywhere else, and we've still only explored a very, very small fraction of the surface of that planet. And even the Moon, which is obviously much smaller, we've only explored the surface to a very small degree. So there's so much more that can be done with exploratory missions, whether those are robotic or human. There's a lot more ground to cover. And that always brings the potential of upending the things that you think you know about that world just by going to a new site. I mean, imagine if you were trying to understand the Earth by only having been to Florida or to just one place and all your knowledge is based on that or maybe five, six places, you still got a very small fraction of an understanding. Now, in the case of Mars, of course, and with the Moon, we've got a lot of great orbital data that's shown us globally, both of those worlds. So we're not going to see anything that we've completely never seen before, probably, right, but we can still be surprised.

Casey Dreier: There's no magnetic anomalies buried on the Moon, right, that we have to unearth to discover [inaudible 00:16:34]-

Matthew Shindell: Yeah. As far as we know. Yeah.

Casey Dreier: Yeah. So again, your expertise is history of science and, of course, the development of these areas. So I am kind of curious, though. Is the paradigm of exploratory science a valued aspect of science development or seen as a valuable process of science? Because in some of your work you talk about how, to use an example that you focus on, the concept of field geology, right, kind of walking around, identifying landform, tying them all together through very painstaking and long laborious hikes into whatever aspect of difficult terrain to map these geologic features was kind of looked down upon by, so-called more quantitative scientists doing geochemistry, measurable aspects, laboratory sciences and the inclusion of field geology, which is basically what a lot of these surface rover missions are, surface missions on other planets are, had to be established or at least validated. But again, that's really, in a sense, this kind of essence of discovery science. You just, what do we see? And if you look... I mean, even to this day, you look to the science traceability matrix of something like Mastcam-Z, which is on the Perseverance rover, the cameras, and they say, "Oh, we're going to study geomorphology." It was like, "Oh, you mean just the way things... the way that rocks look, the shapes of rocks?' That's basically field geology. I mean, so in the concept of paradigm of scientific understanding and development, how does this exploratory science fit in? And it does again seem like it can be challenged at times.

Matthew Shindell: Yeah. Well, definitely in the 1950s and 60s as geologists were starting to turn their attention to the Moon. And part of the reason that they were turning their attention to the Moon was that the US government and NASA had decided that the US Geological Survey would have some role to play in the exploration of the Moon in mapping the Moon and starting to understand its geological history as they prepared for Apollo and started studying Apollo landing sites and even before that when they were preparing for robotic missions and field geology had its critics at the time. My first book is actually a biography of the Nobel Prize-winning Chemist Harold Urey, who took up Earth and planetary science after the end of World War II. He was looking for a new topic that had nothing to do with the work that he'd done during the war. He was trying to get away from that sort of work. And so he started developing ways of using isotopes to study nature. In particular, his first project was about determining the history of ocean temperature. So he's one of the first guys to apply isotope science to studying the ocean and its history and climate records, et cetera. But then he also turned his attention to the Moon and to the planets, and when he saw the geologists mobilizing to do this lunar work, he was very skeptical of them. And he was also very critical of NASA for giving them such an important role because his point was, "Yes, they have a set of tools that they use when they go out into the field, and they can develop these sort of geological stories about these places on the Earth that they visit, but everything they know is based on their study of the Earth. How do we know that the same processes have shaped the surface of the Moon? How do we know that the Moon doesn't have a very different story that geology just isn't well suited for? Let's let them play a role, but they can't lead this effort." And today, fast-forward to today, and planetary geology is like the key science within planetary science. You can't really talk about the rocky planets without an understanding of geology. So over time, geology proved itself and field geology proved itself to be a very transferable set of skills and knowledge that could be applied to lunar and planetary science. But in the beginning, it definitely had its critics. But one of the things that geology is very good at doing especially field geology, is sort of looking at the stratigraphy of a surface and developing a story about what happened and when it happened and how different events affected what you see on the surface of that, of the Moon of Mars, wherever it is that you're looking. And when you then combine that things like geomorphology and mineralogy and other forms of looking at those rocks that tell you more chemical stories or physical stories about what happened there, then you start to get a very nuanced story that geologic history becomes just one aspect of. So what we've seen as spacecraft get more heavily instrumented with new types of instruments. We've seen, I don't know how many types of spectrometer fly to Mars at this point, but we've got so many different overlapping data sets with information about the physical characteristics and the mineralogy on the surface that we can tell very complicated stories now about the histories of different parts of Mars, especially those parts that we've sent rovers to where we've actually ground truth a lot of that information and done more. Well, I mean, we've still not done much more than scratch the surface on Mars, at least-

Casey Dreier: [inaudible 00:22:04].

Matthew Shindell: ... in a literal sense, but we're now able to tell these complicated stories about Mars with this ancient warm, wet past. And on the Moon, similarly, we now have these very complicated stories about how there might be liquid water stored in ice in these permanently shadowed craters of the lunar South Pole, for example. So things that are relatively new insights about the Moon that come from more recent missions like the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and others, that the Moon is still this transforming story even though we've been studying it for so long.

Casey Dreier: I mean, I think the big thing is that there's simultaneously so much to know. We've made so many advancements and in the process of learning them again, as again, I was struck by just reading through your work and thinking about this interview in advance. It's very technology-limited too because one of your other research areas is the development of instrumentation used in planetary missions, and that those don't just generate spontaneously for each mission. They have a lineage and a history that they need to be refined and developed and proven out in order to return. And also comprehensively thought about in terms of what we're trying to answer. And this actually, kind of in a roundabout way, brings me to one of the big topics that we have here or why I reached out to you. You recently wrote an article for Quest Magazine, which is a history of space, which I love the magazine, and I think has a circulation of about 700 people, and unfortunately, you can't find it online. So I don't know if you can share the article that you wrote with us for us to share it, or we can link people to the magazine website itself, and it's not subscribe I'll plug Quest Magazine. But it was called The Commercial Lunar Landers and the Promise of Sustainable Space Exploration. And we're recording this right after the successful landing of Intuitive Machines-1 after the failed landing attempt of Astrobotic's first Peregrine, and you kind of talk about those in this article. I'm obsessed with this idea. Before we get down to the details of this, I just think there's such an interesting intersection with this process and history of planetary science up to this point, and seeing CLPS as a possible turning point or at least shifting of this paradigm of how science is done.

Matthew Shindell: Mm-hmm.

Casey Dreier: And I'll just throw out my hypothesis to you, an actual expert, and you can swat it down or say that there's anything there. But this idea that until now, until CLPS, planetary science has been an exclusively public activity in that we're... and it's exclusively a post-war activity. So it evolved and developed this field in the era of established acceptance that the government should fund fundamental research and development as a public good. And it never existed prior to that like astronomy did where you had to seek out private funding or kind of hook or by crook, particularly in the United States, you didn't have any sort of real government funding for such activities. Planetary science has always been in the world of government funding, and as such, it has been the scientific community was prioritized in that process to say, "These are the types of questions that we consider are important." I mean, this is what the Decadal Survey is at the end of the day. These are the most important questions. "Here's how you answer those questions." And then, the scientific community gets to develop and propose the instruments themselves and fly them specifically to address the questions that they themselves define. And this is how we know about the history. As you were just pointing, the history of Mars, history of the Moon, what we know about the outer planet. All these things are functionally because of that process. CLPS seems to fundamentally rearrange the order of this in that NASA... science is one of many priorities of these CLPS, Commercial Lunar Payload Delivery Services, of which IM, Intuitive Machines, and Astrobotic are two of the potential commercial providers where NASA talks about deliveries to the lunar service. They're buying access. And as a consequence, you can create a scientific instrument, but it's kind of just get... has to get bolted onto an existing hardware platform. And as you know, and some of our listeners know, there's all sorts of complexities about the sensitivities of various scientific instruments, mutual electromagnetic interference that they may have, access needs, power needs, all these limiting factors that need to, and in a spacecraft, they all kind of have to learn to play together. But CLPS they strike me as more of a ride along. It's like, "Okay, we have a number of payloads. Science is some, we have commercial payloads, we have other values that we're trying to achieve." And you kind of get what you get. And that's a very big shift. Is that true? Do you agree with any of this kind of conception? Is this a fundamental... I don't know if I would call it a threat to the scientific paradigm, but it seems like a very different way of doing planetary science compared to the history of what we've seen.

Matthew Shindell: I think there's truth in that description, but I think also there's a little bit...

Casey Dreier: That's the nicest-

Matthew Shindell: ... a little bit more.

Casey Dreier: ... way of saying no.

Matthew Shindell: Well, no. I mean, I agree with you, but to the extent of how new every aspect of what you just described is, I think we could kind of quibble with some of it. So, for example, if you talk to a lot of planetary scientists, or maybe some, maybe not a lot, maybe just a cantankerous few, I don't know, they'll tell you that in some missions, it has often felt like science was being tacked on to something that was designed with other priorities. So that was particularly true, I think, of the Apollo program of sending humans to the Moon. Science often felt like an afterthought in that mission. And for some people on other robotic missions even it's felt like they were told, "Look, you can have your instrument on, but your instrument can't exceed this mass. It can't exceed these requirements." So they kind of felt like science wasn't always the top priority of those missions. Now, I still think it's true that most of the missions that we've sent to Mars over the past couple of decades have really been science-driven. They've been led by scientific questions and they've been led by scientific personnel, right, like principal investigators who have really done the work of balancing the priorities of the mission from that scientific perspective. And so yeah, I think that's definitely true. But then I look at something like the Intuitive Machines IM-1 mission, right, that just flew, and actually that launched after I had finished writing the article that was published in Quest, so I didn't really get to address it there. Yes, it's carrying NASA instruments that were just sort of bolted on as you describe, right. The lander wasn't really designed specifically for those payloads. And in that sense, yeah, it's sort of like you're tacking science onto something that's got other priorities, and it has other customers that are sending things to the Moon. It sent Jeff Koons artwork, for example, to the Moon, but it also carried a camera that was essentially an experiment that was designed by students at Carnegie Mellon, right. So it's got this potential, I think, for other entities, universities, for example, to start sending their own science experiments to the Moon. So while it may not necessarily prioritize NASA Science on those missions, it also opens the door for other institutions to do science on the Moon. So maybe in a sense, and I'm always hesitant to use the word democratize, but maybe, in a sense, it's kind of democratizing the Moon for different types of science that NASA might not be prioritizing. And then, of course, what NASA and all of the companies that are developing these technologies are hoping is that there are also people who want to do commercial things on the Moon and that this what NASA has been describing as a lunar economy or sometimes a cislunar economy is actually going to emerge here. And in doing so, bring down the cost of sending more science to the Moon more often at a more rapid cadence of missions. So if that does end up being the case, then even though the science is kind of tacked onto existing delivery models of these landers, it can happen more often, and it can happen more cheaply.

Casey Dreier: We'll be right back with the rest of our Space Policy Edition of Planetary Radio after this short break.

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Casey Dreier: I mean, this kind of is the question, though. Is any science good enough? I mean, I think that's what [inaudible 00:32:06]. Is it priority science versus we'll learn [inaudible 00:32:09]? I guess that's the essence of this kind of exploratory science. And maybe the Moon is still unexplored enough that pretty much anywhere you go, you'll learn something new. But again, looking at the scientific process up to this point through the Decadal Surveys, you're going through this prioritization discussion debate, saying, "These are the areas that we need to push forward to understand the X, Y, and Z." And just because you put some and get... you do more maybe lower priority science, does that equal one big science? You can't quantify science like that.

Matthew Shindell: Yeah.

Casey Dreier: But I mean, that's-

Matthew Shindell: Well...

Casey Dreier: ... what I see as the fallacy there is that you can do more smaller things, and maybe you can get other players into who are also doing smaller things. But science itself, I mean, pushing boundaries, seems to have just gotten more expensive and complex by the nature of the fact that we've done all the [inaudible 00:33:01] the quote, unquote, easy stuff up to this point. So can you expect that? And then the other thing before you respond, I'll just toss out, is all lunar science, just weird science to begin with in the sense that it's, as you point out, connected? It's always connected to human space flight. Anytime that... I was thinking about [inaudible 00:33:18] anytime that NASA has actually even sent robotic space flight to the Moon, it has been while there has been an effort to return humans back to the Moon. Obviously, it happened in the 1960s. You had your first burst of planetary lunar exploration, then nothing. And then it started picking up in the 2000s again under the auspices of Constellation. That's why we have LRO. That's why we have... That's why we know about the ice in the South Pole and through the LCROSS and other kind of impactors. And when that died, lunar science died too. And now we have Artemis, now we have CLPS.

Matthew Shindell: Mm-hmm.

Casey Dreier: So it's always, in a sense, tied to human exploration and therefore subservient in a sense to it or lower priority to it. So maybe that's just the deal you have with lunar science. You always just get what you get in the service of human space flight.

Matthew Shindell: Yeah. Well, I think this CLPS initiative is, in some ways, a lunar experiment in and of itself, right. NASA wants to see if this type of model will actually yield results. And these first few missions, I think they kind of see as sacrificial lambs, right. If you've heard Thomas Zurbuchen talk about it, they don't really care. Not that they don't care. They're not worried about these first missions succeeding. They're willing to see a certain amount of failure as these first CLPS task orders are carried out. But what they want to eventually see, obviously, is success. And they're actually pinning a lot of their hopes for the VIPER Rover that they're sending to the lunar South Pole on the CLPS program because Astrobotic, who unfortunately, Peregrine One didn't make it to the Moon, it made it to lunar distance and then came back and burned up in the Earth's atmosphere intentionally. They're counting on Astrobotic later this year with a different lander model, their Griffin Lander, to deliver the VIPER Rover to the Moon. And so unlike these early missions where they're just tacking a few instruments onto the spacecraft, that's a really high priority for NASA having VIPER succeed. And in addition to the amount that they've paid for that contract to deliver VIPER, they've also spent all of the money developing and building VIPER itself. So there's going to be a lot more NASA officials on the edge of their seats biting their nails, however you want to put it, when I think that mission goes forward because, at that point, they're going to really want to see success. While they can tolerate a good amount of failure in these early small missions, they're not going to be able to tolerate a lot of failure when it comes to delivering VIPER.

Casey Dreier: Yeah. And that's an excellent point. And I actually had gone back to some of the NASA budget information, and the instrumentation on these initial CLPS orders are relatively basic lower cost types of instrumentation. There's a very specific belabored NASA acronym for a low-cost kind of instrumentation.

Matthew Shindell: There's always an acronym. Yeah.

Casey Dreier: There is, yeah. There're too many TLAs. In this case, there's like five letter acronyms, but they've moved on to what they call prism, which is a more comprehensive suite of instruments to tack on to these commercial lenders that will be going in '25 and '26 and '27. You're talking about 50 million dollar instrument packages. And then, of course, VIPER is a half-a-billion-dollar mission.

Matthew Shindell: Yeah.

Casey Dreier: And I was reminding [inaudible 00:36:47], I mean, that's not... they actually delayed the initial launch on VIPER that added 60 million to VIPER's budget just in kind of standing Army costs in addition to adding more money, as you pointed in your article to the CLPS to the [inaudible 00:36:59], you know, that fixed price delivery contract with Astrobotic. And so there is a lot writing on that one. So it is an evolving... It is more complicated than I'm putting out there. But I think what it is is I am reacting in a way to this perceived demotion of science as the priority and single motivation of executing these types of missions. And again, maybe it is something with the Moon providing alternatives where other planets really you start to stretch when you think about non-science reasons to go there with Mars as kind of this exception for long-term human space flight. But again, so far from current reality, it doesn't impact as much. So that, from your experience in a historical perspective, has something like this happened before? I mean, Alex MacDonald's book on the Long Space Age kind of argues that we're in a historical aberration of government funding for public R&D if you look at the long scope of history, at least in the United States, and we're reverting to more of a historical norm of mixed public and private, are there examples of other fields of science becoming commercialized in this sense? Maybe in biology or for health I guess I could see things like that. But it's a much more complex and directed story, right, where you have actual private funds really supporting this for long-term R&D versus, I think, what you point out in your article. There's money from obviously private sources going into Astrobotic and IM and other of these lunar companies. But NASA is still spending hundreds of billions of dollars propping them up and giving them, not CLPS contracts, but small business investment contracts and a variety of other access to facilities, things to allow them to develop. So I don't know, is there a historical precedent for this, I guess?

Matthew Shindell: Well, I mean, especially when you look at the history of space exploration, there's always been this relationship between NASA and the companies that contract with NASA. And NASA has always relied on there being a thriving and healthy aerospace sector of the US economy. In that sense, this private commercial involvement isn't new in that sense. When I look at the Ranger 7 that we have hanging in the museum, RCA built the camera system that's inside of there. If I look at our Lunar Surveyor that's also in our Destination Moon gallery, Hughes Aircraft built that. But they built it under contract where NASA was paying them for that technology, and then NASA was owning and operating that technology. What NASA is doing now is different in that they are essentially treating their contractors as partners and using a lot of the language of partnership in which these commercial firms are taking on a little bit more of the financial risk and risk of failure in that they are... in the case of Intuitive Machines, they're a publicly traded company. You could see how their stock price was affected, first by the successful landing when it spiked. And then, by the fact that it was revealed that it was landed on its side when the stock value went down. So Intuitive Machines is taking financial risks in operating these missions as a publicly traded company. But as you said, in the article that I wrote, I point out that these firms have also received small business grants from NASA, from DOD. It's more the case for Astrobotic than for Intuitive Machines. But both Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines have also received these No Funds Exchanged Space Act agreements through which they get in-kind support from NASA, whether that's in the form of expertise or facilities use or the exchange of technologies between NASA and these firms. So NASA has done quite a lot of work to support these firms and bring them to the launchpad in a sense. Not to minimize the work that the firms themselves have done, I've visited Astrobotic. They're an incredible group, and they've obviously, despite the malfunction that its fuel system had during flight, it was an incredible piece of technology, and I hope that they fly a second version with a corrected whatever that problem actually turns out to be. So it's this partnership language and partnership relationship that's new. And honestly, if we then think about this commercial dimension of it, again, thinking about the history, not of space exploration in isolation, but of space and space technology more generally, other areas of space flight have been commercialized since almost the beginning. If we think about telecommunication satellites and other things that... where commercial involvement and commercial profit have really driven progress in those areas. Now, whether you can make that model work for lunar exploration or later on for Mars Exploration, I think that's still really an open question because it's hard to imagine, at least for me from a historical standpoint, how you get the costs of delivering something to the Moon and then delivering something back from the Moon if this is lunar resource exploitation to be affordable enough that you can then make a profit off of whatever it is that you're mining on them unless you're mining it to sell it to NASA to then use in a long-term lunar base or whatever it is that they end up establishing through Artemis. So I'm having a little bit of trouble myself, and this is because I'm not a policy person, and I'm not an economist either. I'm a historian, so this may be my limited viewpoint, but I have trouble imagining how you actually develop a full lunar economy that then supports this in the long term.

Casey Dreier: It strikes me, though, that, and I feel like I've said this before, which is, this is a historical moment that we don't have much. That's kind of why I was asking about other industries or other scientific disciplines going through a similar shift where, and again, two non-economists talking about the [inaudible 00:43:20] future commercial marketplace. But the... it strikes me as most of the successful space economy that we do have is solid cystic, or in the sense that it's all about things turning back to Earth. You can go up in space and you turn them around and point back down, and you have a market for that. You don't have people living on the Moon yet. And so you don't have a market necessarily at the Moon, which is why people like Alex MacDonald and others are trying to create in NASA... through NASA are trying to, in a sense, build one and bootstrap one through targeted investment and creating demand and hoping that it will come through that. But that's where I think when people ask, "Will this work?" We just don't have a historical analog, right, for this situation because it's so new, and it does make it exciting. But I think that also makes this... I think it's always important to talk about the risk that is involved. This is a big experiment that is being run right now.

Matthew Shindell: Mm-hmm. Well, you just used the term bootstrapping to describe it, and I think that's a good way. I've been thinking of it as kind of questioning whether or not NASA is putting the cart before the horse in trying to develop these commercial partnerships and entities before establishing a presence on the Moon. Because if you look at the history of the way that NASA imagined this in the past if we look at the early years of Apollo, lunar industry was going to follow human exploration of the Moon. It wasn't going to get us there. It was going to be something that evolved after we had been there for a certain amount of time and built up a certain amount of infrastructure. So in that sense, the government or NASA was going to lead, and then industry was going to eventually take hold and bring the cost down and develop products that wouldn't be possible without being on the Moon or in space. And that's been the case for other space industries. But in this case, NASA is trying to bring in the commercial firms and develop this lunar economy prior to or alongside the first human missions back to the Moon. And to me, that's the part that I think there's no precedent for in the space industry is trying to kind of develop this economy before you've really established your foothold or presence in that area.

Casey Dreier: Well, I wonder again, maybe to phrase this as a historical question for the historian here, is that more of a reflection of cultural trends and resonances of the differences between now and the 1960s, which was, I don't know, socialist is not how they would describe themselves, but maybe a slightly more egalitarian or socially conscious or bigger role of a more higher trust in public services era of the United States. And so you had the capability demonstrated de facto by Apollo is succeeding, that it would be led by this way and maybe overdrawn from historical analogy at that point in terms of how markets would get developed, particularly with flight or something like that. But now you have more of a distrust in government institutions and a more of a, at least among certain parts of the culture, interest and support in the capability of commercial and marketplace as the solution, right. Philosophically driven in a lot of cases. And maybe it's reflecting of that, and that's why NASA is including it now. It's a way to increase the constituency and political value, this is my policy hat on, of the process. And they'll take the risk as a consequence because it's... you'll see something in terms of the funding for CLPS has been, ever since it started, it has gotten exactly what it has asked for. Congress has been very specific. It has never given less than what has been asked for CLPS in its history, which is really interesting in that sense. It's the support for this big experiment has been resolute. And I wonder if that's that philosophical aspect that it's reflecting in our current culture as shifting historical trends. So historian, is that correct? You can politely tell me no on that one.

Matthew Shindell: That's a good question. Yeah. Well, what you made me think of Walter McDougall's the Heavens and the Earth, where he basically argues that in the Cold War space race, we had this adversary that believed in a controlled economy, whereas what we had was this free market economy, but in order to compete with our adversary, we created this bubble within our own economy that was a controlled economy, and that was NASA with this unlimited budget and contracting authority, et cetera, to sort of mobilize industry. And so I think his argument is, essentially like NASA was this pocket of not quite socialism, but of not free market economy, but unlimited spending for these political goals in this sort of very linear-

Casey Dreier: It's a top down directed-

Matthew Shindell: ... arrangement of-

Casey Dreier: ... program, right?

Matthew Shindell: Yeah, top-down directed economy. Exactly. And you're right. That trust in authority, trust in government was at a high in the 1950s when NASA's first established. And then, by the time Apollo ends, it's taken a nosedive. Although NASA continued to inspire trust in people, it was one of the top most trusted agencies within the US government, and I think still is one of the most trusted agencies in the US government. But yeah, I think we do see a shift, which may be cultural trends are responsible for that, but also what we've seen happen, for example, with SpaceX and this idea of commercial launch services that also maybe transformed what the public thought they should be able to expect from a free market approach to space exploration. And when Donald Trump's White House in 2017 put out its space directive, it was essentially, "We're going to send humans back to the Moon, and we're going to do it through public-private partnerships, and we're going to stimulate a new lunar economy." So it all essentially came from that in 2017. And then, CLPS was established in 2018 as NASA's response to that. And you're right, nobody has objected to it except, I think, some folks within NASA centers and some other NASA boosters who basically say, "Wait a minute, we know how to build these things. We've been successfully landing on the surface of another planet for years now. Why don't we just apply what we know about it rather than trying to go to these private companies who have no experience with it?" And so, it really is a shift in philosophy, right, to go to these untried and untested companies and ask them to basically come up with the cheapest landers that they can build that they still believe will be reliable.

Casey Dreier: And again, it's kind of interesting how the response has been with the mixed success so far, and I think NASA clearly set and you have Zurbuchen clearly setting the expectations accurately. Part of me wonders, though, too that NASA has been able to successfully, in a sense, outsource their reputational risk by doing this as well-

Matthew Shindell: Yes.

Casey Dreier: ... right, that, as you point out.

Matthew Shindell: So I think that's a good point because if you look, for example, at the history of other attempts within NASA to cut costs, they've done things like scale back on the engineering practices that they have with fewer redundancies, fewer tests models, basically trying to cut the cost of developing new spacecraft. But then, the minute that one of those spacecraft fails, NASA falls back on its old model of spending more for less risk. And that was one of the problems with, for example, the faster, better, cheaper model of space flight that Goldin introduced when he was the head of NASA. And that eventually turned into a very successful discovery program. But what he described was faster, better, cheaper. And the answer always was, you can have two of those. You can't have all three, right. Because if you want a spacecraft that's not going to fail and you don't want to take too much risk that NASA's reputation is going to be dragged through the dirt, then you have to invest in at least two of those three things. You can't have all three. And I mean, that's a joke, I think, throughout the government, not only to NASA, but whenever you're contracting for anything, you can either have speed, quality, or low cost. You can't have all three.

Casey Dreier: Right. Pick two.

Matthew Shindell: But this is an ongoing thing within NASA when they tried to rebound after the Cold War and reinitiate Mars Exploration. For example, they tried to start using commercially available spacecraft systems that they could modify to send to Mars. And that turned out to not work very well. That didn't keep costs down. It also led to a lot more risk because these technologies weren't actually developed for interplanetary missions.

Casey Dreier: Mars Observer, right, [inaudible 00:52:32]?

Matthew Shindell: Yeah, exactly. I'm referring to Mars Observer, and Discovery has been the big success story in that it reduced the cost and led to these great smaller scale. They're not as big as the big flagship missions that NASA still sends, like Perseverance, for example, where you're spending a great deal of money for a spacecraft mission, they're lower budget, and they're science-led. They're led by principal investigators, have to be proposed by the science community, have to fit into whatever has been prioritized by the Decadal Survey, and then go through a whole selection and development process before they fly. But even in the case of the Discovery program, those costs have never been as low as NASA first intended. The budgets for those Discovery missions always is higher than what was originally intended.

Casey Dreier: They're billion-dollar missions now. I mean, you look at both the projected cost of VERITAS and DAVINCI, the two recent discovery missions, and they're $1.2 billion for their life cycle, which I guess is still lower, right. But it's not. It's far from. And I've had a white paper today with a friend, Elizabeth Frank, who the [inaudible 00:53:42] planetary science now for a number of years, highlighting this growth. The risk tolerance has gone way down. The cost is going up, and you don't really have an area for true low cost. Maybe flirting with this a little bit with SIMPLEx, these very small planetary missions and Lunar Trailblazer, which is actually the president of The Planetary Society is putting together, but CLPS is kind of starting to fit into this area, I think, because you can, in a sense, protect NASA's brand. And you've seen that. We kind of just went through that test with the loss of Peregrine.

Matthew Shindell: Mm-hmm.

Casey Dreier: There's no congressional hearings called to investigate the money, why the payloads were lost. There was no big out. It was kind of exciting. I'd say Astrobotic was very complimentary to them open and about their struggles with it, and sharing the data. And it's now that we're moving on to the next ones, and it'll be interesting I think now that the payload value is going up, maybe we'll see lower tolerance in the future.

Matthew Shindell: I think you're right. Through CLPS, NASA has been able to sort of transfer the risk and the reputational risk and financial risk over to the companies. But eventually, if a larger number of these fail than succeed, and especially if a really high-value mission fails, $100 million here and $100 million there, eventually you're talking about real money, right. So you can only tolerate so many failures on NASA's dime before NASA does start to feel the impact of those failures on its reputation.

Casey Dreier: Exactly. And I guess that's [inaudible 00:55:19] maybe we can revisit this in a year because we're going to get a lot more... I mean, that's the exciting thing is that there's a number of more missions already still yet for this year and going forward. I wanted to hit on one more topic from your paper because I thought it was really interesting before we run out of time here. And that's the role, and we mentioned it already. The role in history of institute, resource utilization, making things on the Moon for use on the Moon. You, in your article, talked a little bit about the history. I did not know that they were talking about this idea in the early 1960s. Before Apollo actually succeeded, they were starting to look for useful things on the Moon. Can you talk... Just how did this idea of the ISRU embed, or was that considered at the time, and how do you see it playing forward given that understanding of its role throughout NASA history or CLPS?

Matthew Shindell: Yeah. Well, the earliest lander missions on the Moon, those first Surveyor missions, did yield information that there was valuable minerals on the Moon, metals, and other minerals that were of value. So the idea occurred, I think, to both NASA administrators and also to Department of the Interior, who obviously oversaw the US Geological Survey and the work that they were doing on the Moon. It was, I think, in some ways, maybe not more than a thought experiment at first. Could you actually mine these materials on the Moon, and could you then use them either on the Moon or back on Earth? And Department of Interior with the Bureau of Mines did some experiments that I don't really know all of the details of, but to basically see what would a lunar mining operation actually consist of. And they played with this idea until realizing that it would be way too expensive to do, at least with the technologies that they were talking about in the 1960s. And so it was kind of put on the shelf in a sense. But the idea never really went away within NASA, especially with those who, after Apollo, continued to want the US to send missions, whether those were more robotic missions or human missions. And that idea of living off the land on the Moon turned into what we know today as in situ resource utilization. And it makes a lot of sense when you think about the cost of sending humans or robots to the Moon, and especially if you eventually want to have a permanent human presence on because even the most simplest things, water, that you need for any human mission to succeed, you can't keep humans alive without water. It's incredibly heavy to carry with you in space the quantities that you need, even if you're recycling that water in your habitat or your spacecraft. And so, the idea of ISRU has gotten wrapped up into this idea of creating a sustainable presence on the Moon. And by sustainable, obviously, what they mainly mean is affordable presence. They're not talking about environmental sustainability necessarily, but economic sustainability. And the same can then be true of the materials that you want to use to build your habitat, your base, your research station, whatever it is that you're building on the Moon. If you can utilize the things that are already there locked up in the rocks and maybe the rocks themselves to build your shelter, then that, again, saves you a lot of mass that you no longer have to carry with you, and you can bring the cost of your mission down. So ISRU is a big part of the way that people are thinking about lunar exploration today, as well as Mars Exploration. Because if you can make it work, and I don't think there's any reason why you can't, if you develop the technologies that allow you to use the resources and if the resources are actually there in the quantities in which you need them. And I think there's a question with the water of whether or not there's actually great deal of water locked up in the ice in those shadowed craters, or if it's just a small amount or... That's one of those questions that VIPER and other in situ missions are going to have to answer before we know whether ISRU will work on the Moon. But if you can make it work, obviously, it can bring down a lot of the cost of exploration, at least when it comes to launching and delivering the things that you need on the Moon. Now, developing the technologies that'll make it possible still comes with a cost, and we don't know yet what that cost will be. But in the long run, ISRU may be the best option that we have if we do want to send humans to the Moon and eventually to Mars.

Casey Dreier: Yeah, I thought it was interesting that you kind of tied CLPS and ISRU together because I hadn't previously really considered them alongside, but CLPS is almost... I mean, ISRU has always been so difficult because you almost need to have low-cost access in order to attempt something like that to then justify the upfront investment to prove out and then reliably make all this stuff. But then the idea is to keep it cheaper. But if it's so expensive in the first place, then you probably won't have is ISRU and so forth and so on. CLPS, theoretically, I mean, and almost struck me as like there's two different types of sustainability, right. There's the literally sustaining life and keeping things going on the Moon, and CLPS is almost this kind of by bringing in commercial partners, this idea of political sustainability and constituent sustainability and market sustainability that is reinforcing of, but not dependent on something like IRSRU. And you can see again, this a historical moment that we're in of whether these work or not really sets how this goes in the long run. But I almost wonder, without a successful CLPS program, if ISRU is really going to be viable because then, if you have CLPS, you can say, "Oh, we're going to plop down these types of devices and processing units and scouters at various places, and then we have a human landing go and set them up or something like that." And without that, you have everything in these big human missions probably becomes unfeasible, or you're not launching enough, or who knows. And so the opportunity here of having this capability, right, this ability to place things on the Moon where you want to place them for an order of magnitude cheaper probably than what NASA is used to paying really is an enabling capability that then enables other enabling capabilities, and then maybe just kind of snowballs from there. So maybe that's an optimistic way to wrap this up is thinking about these two aspects.

Matthew Shindell: I think you're right because I think it's tied to ISRU. CLPS is tied to ISRU in at least two ways. One is these initial CLPS missions, especially the delivery of VIPER, are meant to validate the idea that there is water that one most important resource that's there to utilize. And then, in the second way, you're absolutely right. If you can't deliver your ISRU technologies to the Moon affordably, then you can argue that in the long term, the cost is going to go down because you've now got the ISRU in place. You're utilizing those in situ resources, and things will get cheaper in a decade or two decades or however long down the road. But that doesn't really help you in the American political environment, right. If you're spending half a billion or a billion dollars every time you send a technology to the Moon, you're not going to last that long with the US Congress and the White House. But if you can do it cheaply through these commercial lunar landers and spend just $100 million or 200 every time, then maybe you can survive long enough to actually get things rolling.

Casey Dreier: That's a good, again, optimistic point to end this discussion. Matt, thank you again for joining us on this episode. I really enjoyed your article and your past work that you've written and published on the history of Planetary Exploration, and I just assumed that there is probably some sort of Raiders of the Lost Ark-esque warehouse where you keep all the really exciting planetary mission hardware. So I hope you can show me through that one day, and we can look at all the good stuff.

Matthew Shindell: Well, we like to put all the cool stuff on display, but there is some cool stuff that we do keep it in storage. It's not exactly like Raiders of the Lost Ark, but there are a lot of crates in there, so yeah.

Casey Dreier: All right. Thank you again, and we will hopefully revisit this in a few years and see if we have more historical analogs to pull from as we approach this really exciting time.

Matthew Shindell: Yeah, thank you. I'm looking forward to it.

Casey Dreier: Thank you, as always, for joining us on the Space Policy Edition. You can find more episodes of the Space Policy Edition as well as our weekly show, Planetary Radio, at or on pretty much any major podcast network. If you like the shows, particularly if you like this show, please subscribe, share, and even drop us a review. It really helps us get found by others. The Space Policy Edition is a production of The Planetary Society, an independent nonprofit space outreach organization based in Pasadena, California. We are membership-based, and anyone anywhere can be a member. I hope you consider it. Membership start at $4 a month at And, of course, if you are already a member, thank you. Until next month, ad astra.