"Foust Forward" appears in every SpaceNews release. This column runs in issue December 3, 2018.
When NASA announced its commercial program Lunar Payload Services at the beginning of this year, the first question was how to pronounce its abbreviated abbreviation, CLPS. Consensus soon had to put imaginary "i" in the middle, so it sounds like "clips".
Maybe it should be pronounced "clap." NASA's headquarters was 29 years ago when NASA announced the nine companies it chose to participate in CLPS. The flap when business leaders were on the podium. Welcome to the promotional video that launched the action. NASA astronaut flapper Stan Love, who, on a video from Johnson's Space Center, bounced the harness on the floor to simulate the one-sixth gravity of the moon. The flap for the Mars spacecraft, InSight, which landed on the planet three days earlier. ("We're still high on Mars," said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's Science Administrator.)
The result was a spectacle that was an unusual way to launch a new business initiative. Students from local FIRST Robotics teams received more time in the event than companies that have won contracts and more than a chance to ask questions from NASA executives than journalists in the room or on the phone. "Personally, a happy day, but what a special event," remarked one of the winning companies.
Scary children have overlooked the fact that CLPS prices are a bit overwhelming for now. While the agency said the contracts had a total value of $ 2.6 billion in 10 years, the maximum value for these indefinite supplies, indefinite valuations. So far, each business earns only a token sum to produce user manuals without the assurance that they will get more.
Companies will now have to compete with each other – and possibly with other companies in the future – about task orders that would fly an individual payload that NASA is still in the process of identifying. Companies also have to collect money and build their landing gear: to a large extent what they offered were conceptual art and mockups, with designs still more than a critical revision of the maturity level.
But although the announcement lacks a lot of substance, the program is still important for NASA and industry. Some companies have noticed after events that the awards will help them get money from investors by showing their cars a real and potentially lucrative customer. The lack of such customers during the Google Lunar X competition, which has now disappeared, has made it difficult for many companies to fund their landings and try to get a prize.
NASA considers CLPS a way to achieve low-cost science on the Moon, including work that identifies resources that could support future human exploration. More importantly, CLPS is a risky effort, with many companies likely to suffer technical or financial failures. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine compared the CLPS class to the venture capitalist portfolio: little is needed for the overall program to be successful.
And if it is a success, CLPS could make a long way to achieving a "sustainable" return to the Moon, which has been NASA's mantra since the signing of the Space Policy Directive 1 almost a year ago. Even many other aspects of NASA's monthly plans remain uncertain or, in the case of Gate, it is subject to criticism and helping to create a commercial way to go to the Moon – which could be extended over time to support a larger and more complex payload – could lead to a long way to end the last decades of effort to stop and go back to the moon's surface.
If the CLPS reaches it, it is definitely worth the applause.