The failure of recent missions highlights the challenges of relying on private entities to spearhead the US’s lunar ambitions.
Hopes were high for the much-hyped first private US Moon lander mission, launched from Kennedy Space Center earlier this month. But following a problem with a propellant valve, the Peregrine lander from Astrobotic didn’t make it to the Moon and instead burned up in Earth’s atmosphere, having failed to deliver its 20 payloads, including a number of NASA experiments.
The failure of the most recent mission is a blow but not entirely surprising, according to experts. Nor is it indicative that such private lunar launches won’t work in the future. Even so, despite the Apollo landings of the 1970s, the technological challenges of reaching the Moon remain significant.
“It’s still really hard to get to the Moon,” said Rebecca Boyle, author of Our Moon: How Earth’s Celestial Companion Transformed the Planet, Guided Evolution, and Made Us Who We Are. “It’s still super far away. Yes, we did it with more rudimentary technology 50 years ago, but the physics haven’t changed. It’s still really hard.”
For one thing, we’ve lost institutional knowledge as Apollo scientists and engineers have retired and passed on. But the most significant difference between lunar programs then and now is the amount of money being invested by the government into NASA. With a relatively smaller budget, the agency is turning to private companies to help its lunar ambitions.
“I think now the governments are not as involved,” said astrophysicist Ehud Behar of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. “They’re not as determined. And that’s maybe a good thing because the private sector is coming in and filling in that gap.”
Doing business in space
The Astrobotic mission was the first big launch under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services, or CLPS, program, which aims to fund private companies to provide landing services on the Moon. NASA officials such as former administrator Jim Bridenstine have spoken about the desire to make NASA one customer of private space services among many as a way to lower costs while still enabling scientific research and exploration.
Private companies are going to be essential to NASA’s long-term plans for the Moon, experts agree, especially when it comes to the goal of getting people back to its surface. “If you want to get people up there again, you really need to rely on private enterprise to help you,” Boyle said.
That could include providing hardware like solar panels and habitats and also infrastructure like communications and launch services. If these services are available to NASA at a lower price than it would spend doing them itself, that will enable the agency to stretch its budget further.
“The resources are not as much as they were back then [in the Apollo era] but I think the private sector involvement is going to get us there eventually,” Behar said.
That approach has arguably worked well for low Earth orbit, where companies are already building out an economy that spans far beyond the kind of launch services offered by SpaceX or Rocket Lab.
“Space has become a place where you can do business,” Behar said. “The main businesses right now in space are communications, navigation, development of special materials, optics, medicine. Companies realize that it’s worth the investment of doing these kinds of missions or these kinds of experiments in space.”
The challenge with applying this to the Moon is that it’s not obvious, at least in the short term, what money there is to be made. In the long term, there is the potential for resource extraction and exchange, but for now, with the option of the International Space Station as a reliable venue for research in space, it’s not clear what the Moon — a riskier and much more expensive venue — offers investors.
“I don’t know that there’s a good business plan that you can take to an investor today,” Behar said.
Risks and delays
Space development is going to continue to require significant government investment, even if it heavily involves private companies. That’ll be especially true for NASA’s plans for the Moon, which involve setting up an orbiting space station, sending humans to the surface for periods of weeks rather than days, and creating infrastructure.
“I think it’s going to be the private sector that’s going to spearhead that exploration, with strong support from the government. Because people forget that there’s no space exploration — there’s actually nothing in space — without government investment,” Behar said. “Even SpaceX, which is the poster child of privatized space, has huge contracts with the government. They could not have done what they did without government support.”
While this approach allows NASA to spread some of the load of technology development for lunar missions, it can also be a point of failure. NASA announced last week it would be delaying its first Artemis Moon landing to 2026 because of issues with the SpaceX Starship.
Along with NASA’s own Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, the SpaceX Starship is intended to be used to carry astronauts to the Moon. But the Starship has exploded dramatically in its first two fully integrated test flights, and NASA has decided to delay its next two Artemis missions (the next of which will use the SLS, and the one after, the Starship) to allow more time for development.
It would be easy to paint this as an obvious failure of NASA’s reliance on SpaceX to provide launch vehicles. However, NASA has had plenty of problems with its own rocket, the SLS, which did launch on a successful uncrewed mission around the Moon in 2022 but has been beset by a decade of delays and budget overruns.
Often derided as the rocket to nowhere, NASA has struggled to convince many in the space industry of SLS’s usefulness, particularly given its exorbitant cost. It has been in development for so long that, arguably, commercial entities like SpaceX will soon be able to provide many of the same facilities, likely for a lower price tag.
The risk-averse safety-first culture of government agencies may be exactly what is wanted when it comes to putting people into space, but it also may not be suited to the development of the supporting technologies required for these missions.
“There are inherent problems with government overseeing every aspect of something, because the government can tend to be bloated and slow, and the regulatory process behind all these things makes it take longer,” Boyle said. “Private companies are maybe willing to take more risks, because there’s potential for payoff later.”
A lack of regulations
The Astrobotic launch points to not only a political and technological issue but also an ethical one. Included on the Peregrine lander were sets of human remains, which were to be landed on the lunar surface in a service that companies Celestis and Elysium Space offered as memorial space flights. These ashes presumably burned up in the atmosphere along with the Peregrine lander when it failed to reach the Moon.
But the whole concept of scattering ashes on the Moon was controversial, as the Moon is considered sacred in some cultures, including the Navajo. Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren described the plans to place human remains there as a “desecration.”
NASA was criticized for not meeting with Navajo Nation representatives about this issue, especially given previous concerns raised over a similar incident in 1998. NASA officials did eventually meet with Nygren, but in a press conference following the meeting, the agency said it was unable to delay the launch or control what Astrobotic or other companies placed on the lunar surface.
“We don’t have the framework for telling them what they can and can’t fly,” said Chris Culbert, CLPS program manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
Currently, there are barely any rules about what can or can’t be landed on the Moon. The nearest thing to international law regarding the use of the Moon is the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, but it hardly covers the issues around space use today. “It’s very out of date, not everyone is a signatory to that, and it doesn’t even fathom private commercial use,” Boyle said. “So there’s really no road map for this.”
Some experts argue that regulations aren’t needed at this point and would only hamper the potential for exploration and discovery on the Moon. It is, after all, still extremely difficult to reach the Moon.
“As far as the Moon is concerned, right now I wouldn’t impose any restrictions,” Behar said. “I think it’s hard enough to get there.” The time for regulation will come later, he argued. “If people start fighting over resources on the Moon, then obviously we will need to have treaties and international agreements and so on and so forth. But at this point I wouldn’t hold anybody back.”
Others disagree, arguing that now is exactly the time to start raising these issues. “This is happening now. This is happening in real time, and people need to be aware of the lack of constraints, and the lack of discussion of constraints,” Boyle said. It will take time for the predicted private lunar economy to become a reality, but that gives us time for the discussion. “There is no general consensus for how to treat the Moon internationally, and we really need to talk about having it.”
There’s a scientific concern about preserving the Moon as well because it isn’t only human remains that companies have tried to send there. In 2019, a private Israeli spacecraft called Beresheet attempted to land on the Moon but crashed onto its surface, scattering its cargo, which included thousands of tardigrades — microscopic animals known to survive in extreme environments.
Subsequent research showed that the animals were likely to have been destroyed in the impact, but the incident raised concerns over contamination and what it could have meant if the animals had survived.
“What if you just seeded the Moon with this life-form?” Boyle pointed out. “I don’t think that’s crazy to be concerned about. And it just points out the fact that we never even had a discussion about it.”
If the tardigrades had survived, the contamination would likely have been confined to a small area, and certainly humans have left behind biological matter from previous visits to the Moon. But particularly concerning in this case was the fact that the inclusion of tardigrades on the lander wasn’t publicly discussed before launch.
While there weren’t any international guidelines broken by the inclusion of the tardigrades on the lander, there also wasn’t any governing body consulted about the matter. And a co-founder of the group that added the tardigrades to the lander acknowledged to Mashable that they deliberately withheld the information that there were life-forms on board from space agencies because “we just decided to take the risk.”
Who gets to decide?
With the increasing privatization of space all but an inevitability, it’s hard not to be skeptical of the motivations of companies with lunar ambitions. “One reason there’s such a headlong rush to get up there is it’s sort of about staking a claim,” Boyle said.
Comparable to the expansion of mining into the American West, which completely reshaped the land, unfettered access to the Moon has the potential to both supercharge technological development and create the conditions for exploitation of a natural resource and cultural artifact. Of course, there aren’t any existing cultures on the Moon to be disrupted or exploited, but as Boyle points out, the history of human expansion has often been destructive: “When we talk about these things, we need to be mindful of how this has gone on Earth in the past. And it hasn’t gone that great.”
The good news for the scientifically curious is that scientific exploration and commercial interests aren’t necessarily in conflict. Development of tools can be beneficial to both, Behar said: “Since space is so hard, the fundamentals of just getting there, surviving there, having your instruments work there, those are going to be the same whether you’re going to do business up there, or science, or defense.”
But there’s an ethical imperative at play as well regarding whose interests are represented when it comes to both exploration and commercial use of such a culturally significant place.
“It doesn’t belong to anyone, which means it belongs to everyone. And so any use of it, any visitation to it, I think demands consideration of everybody,” Boyle said.
The Moon could be considered similar to Antarctica or the International Space Station, where international cooperation, imperfect as it may be, works to preserve regions for the good of all rather than for an individual nation or company.
Because even with a string of failed private landing attempts and all the challenges of lunar exploration, people won’t stop trying to visit the Moon. It offers the opportunity for learning and discovery, which makes it irresistible.
“Scientists take pride in doing hard things,” Behar said. “It’s like mountaineers. You ask a mountaineer, ‘Why are you climbing the mountain?’ The answer is: because it’s there.”