Trump administration’s NASA transition team shows interest in lunar resources

Astronaut Harrison Schmitt collects lunar rake samples during the Apollo 17 mission. Credit: NASA

The Trump administration’s NASA transition team showed an interest in lunar resources.

Documents exchanged between NASA and the Trump transition’s agency review team, obtained under a Freedom of Information Act inquiry, showed that the transition team was interested in NASA’s plans to survey the moon for resources, and about its technology transfer and commercialization activities.

The White House declined to comment on any interest the administration has in mining the moon. [Motherboard]

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NASA’s inspector general believes it’s likely there will be additional delays in the first two SLS/Orion missions. In a report released Thursday, NASA’s Office of Inspector General concluded that a number of technical issues, and a lack of schedule reserve, will result in delays for the first SLS/Orion mission, EM-1 in November 2018, as well as EM-2 planned for August 2021. That assessment doesn’t factor in potential additional delays from tornado damage to the Michoud Assembly Facility or the possibility of putting a crew on EM-1, which would push back that mission to at least mid-2019. The report also recommended NASA do more to detail its long-term exploration plans and how they can fit into its projected budgets. [SpaceNews]

Scientists have detected more evidence that two moons in the outer solar system could be habitable. At a NASA press conference Thursday, scientist said they detected hydrogen in plumes emanating from Enceladus, an icy moon of Saturn thought to have a subsurface ocean. That hydrogen, scientists said, could provide a chemical energy source for any life there. A separate study found new evidence that Jupiter’s moon Europa also has plumes. Hubble observations detected signs of plumes, which may only be intermittent. [Science]

Those discoveries bolster the case for sending new missions to those “ocean worlds.” NASA is currently developing the Europa Clipper mission for launch as soon as 2022. That spacecraft will be equipped with instruments to better determine the habitability of Europa, including studying the composition of its plumes. There are no missions on the books for Enceladus or other moons of Saturn, but Enceladus is one possible destination for the ongoing competition for the next New Frontiers medium-class planetary science mission. NASA, at the direction of Congress, is developing a roadmap to guide an “Ocean Worlds Exploration Program” to determine if such worlds could host life. [SpaceNews]

An astronaut getting three extra months on the International Space Station is happy to have her mission extended. NASA announced last week that Peggy Whitson will remain on the ISS until September, rather than returning in June as originally planned. She said she’s not bored working on the station, but does lament the limited food choices available on the station. Whitson, who will break the record for most cumulative time spent in space by a NASA astronaut later this month, added she wouldn’t mind going to space again after this mission. [AP]

The Orion spacecraft that made a brief 2014 test flight is now on display at the Kennedy Space Center. The capsule, which flew on the five-hour Exploration Flight Test 1 mission in December 2014, is in the “NASA Now” exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. The EFT-1 capsule was expected to fly again on a test of the Orion abort system, but prime contractor Lockheed Martin now plans to use a boilerplate capsule instead. The capsule’s base is surrounded by a curtain to hide its missing heat shield, which was removed for analysis. [collectSPACE]

Legendary Apollo-era flight director Gene Kranz praised SpaceX for taking risks. Kranz, speaking on a panel after a screening of the new documentary Mission Control, supported SpaceX’s use of a previously flown booster to successfully launch an SES satellite last month. “Space involves risk, and I think that’s the one thing about Elon Musk and all the various space entrepreneurs: they’re willing to risk their future in order to accomplish the objective that they have decided on,” he said. [Ars Technica]

A federal court has cleared the way for a lawsuit against a NASA agent in involved in a moon rock sting. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously Thursday that Joann Davis has the right to sue on the basis that her constitutional rights against unlawful detention had been violated by Norman Conley, a special agent and criminal investigator for NASA’s Office of Inspector General. Conley detained Davis, 75 at the time, in 2011 for two hours as part of a sting operation after she tried to sell an artifact from her late husband that she believed contained an Apollo 11 moon rock. Conley had argued that, as a federal agent, he was immune from liability. The ruling allows Davis’ suit to proceed. [Los Angeles Times]

Blue Origin ready to support NASA lunar missions with Blue Moon

Meyerson Blue Moon

COLORADO SPRINGS — If NASA’s human spaceflight program is redirected back to the Moon, Blue Origin is ready to support it with its proposed “Blue Moon” lunar lander system, company president Robert Meyerson said April 5.

Blue Moon can “cost effectively soft-land large amounts of mass onto the lunar surface,” Meyerson said at the 33rd Space Symposium here, his first public comments about the system since its existence was first reported in March by the Washington Post. “Any credible first lunar settlement is going to require such a capability.”

The lander, he said, would be part of a “space transfer and lunar lander architecture, leveraging Blue and NASA technologies,” he said. “Blue Moon directly leverages our New Shepard proven vertical takeoff and vertical landing technology, combined with our extensive liquid propulsion capabilities to reduce development time and risk.”

Blue Origin would be willing to invest in development of the Blue Moon system as part of a partnership with NASA, Meyerson said, envisioning regular delivery of resources and supplies to a potential lunar colony to augment NASA missions launched by the agency’s own Space Launch System.

“The more NASA flies SLS, the more they will need commercial logistics delivery services,” he said. “New Glenn and Blue Origin and Blue Moon compliment SLS and Orion, enabling NASA’s return to the moon, and this time to stay.”

NASA’s current human spaceflight plans do not include human missions to the lunar surface. Instead, NASA has outlined an an architecture that calls for the development of a human-tended facility in cislunar space, called the Deep Space Gateway, by the mid-2020s intended to support testing of technologies needed for human missions to Mars in the 2030s.

However, other nations have expressed interest in human missions to the moon, and the Deep Space Gateway could support such missions. “The goal is to see what we can prove out in the area around the moon and work with our international partners to see what we can do on the surface of the moon,” NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot said of NASA’s plans here April 4, adding that such cooperation would be extended to commercial partners as well.

The proposed Blue Moon design would be optimized to fly on SLS, but could also launch aboard other rockets including United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 and Blue Origin’s own New Glenn rocket, he said.

Lunar missions fit into the vision of company founder Jeff Bezos, who frequently talks about a future with an extensive human presence beyond Earth. “The lunar surface offers valuable resources with valuable science return and can serve as a location to demonstrate key technologies and serve as an appropriate location for that long-term permanent settlement,” Meyerson said.

“We also believe the moon is in sequence for longer term exploration of the solar system, including Mars,” he said. “These are the first steps we’re working on to enable our vision of millions of people living and working in space.”

Jeff Foust contributed to this story.