The recent cancellation of the Lunar Resource Prospector mission has eyebrows raised in aerospace and lunar exploration circles. The Trump administration has directed NASA to return astronauts to the moon. Space agency plans include using lunar resources, mainly water ice at the moon’s south and north poles, to facilitate that mission. So, the cancellation of that mission would seem to constitute a disconnect between NASA’s mandate and its mission.

What was the Lunar Resource Prospector supposed to have done?

The Lunar Resource Prospector was to consist of a lander and a rover.

The rover would wander about the lunar surface taking samples with a drill and analyzing them. While the mission had not been fully funded, it was far along and ready for a significant design review by the end of 2018. The planned launch would have taken place in 2022.

Why was the mission canceled?

The Lunar Resource Prospector was moved from a part of NASA that funds human space exploration to one that handles science missions. The problem was that the mission did not quite fit within the science directorate’s funding or priorities so it was duly killed. In other words, the matter seems to have been a result of bureaucratic bungling that yielded a lousy result that ran contrary to NASA’s lunar exploration mandate.

What happens now?

A number of people are urging newly confirmed NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine to intervene. Indeed, Bridenstine recently offered the following tweet concerning NASA’s lunar exploration mandate.

The dichotomy between proposing to go back to the moon and canceling a crucial mission for that mandate could not be starker.

Bridenstine would have to reverse the cancellation decision, which would cause some embarrassment in certain quarters but would burnish his street cred as a leader taking control of the NASA bureaucracy.

To be sure, NASA has some joint missions to the moon with commercial companies such as Moon Express and Astrobotic. However, the Lunar Resource Prospector would complement rather than compete with such missions.

Bridenstine could use some backup from NASA’s congressional backers. Sen Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Rep John Culberson, R-Texas could issue statements deploring the decision and urging the space agency to reconsider. Congressional support would also be useful for finding whatever extra money might be needed to get the Lunar Resource Prospector mission back on track.

The alternative, even if the commercial missions go forward, would be to waste the four years of time and effort it has taken to get the mission as far as it has gone. Space exploration observers are already openly wondering if NASA is really serious about going back to the moon.