After the VIPER rover launches into space aboard a rocket, Astrobotic’s lunar lander, called Griffin, will carry VIPER on the last leg of its 239,000-mile trip, taking it from orbit to a soft landing at the Moon’s south pole. (NASA and Astrobotic said Thursday that they have not yet decided which rocket will be used for this mission.)
Landing on the moon is no simple task. Throughout history, only three governments have ever developed vehicles that landed softly on the moon: The United States, China and the former Soviet Union. And NASA hasn’t sent a mission to the lunar surface — with robots or humans — since the Apollo program, which ended in the 1970s.
Water ice can be converted into drinking water or oxygen that could be essential for establishing a long-term human presence on the Moon. Water can also be converted to rocket fuel by separating the hydrogen and oxygen molecules, allowing NASA or a commercial company to set up a rocket fueling outpost that could allow vehicles to explore deeper into the cosmos.
It’s been nearly half a century since a US-made spacecraft — robotic or crewed — has landed on the lunar surface. NASA has been heavily focused on hastening the return of lunar exploration under the directive of Vice President Mike Pence, who said last year that the space agency should return humans to the moon by 2024 “by any means necessary.”
A key part of the space agency’s plan is to rely extensively on public-private partnerships to spur innovation and cut costs. The space agency is handing out fixed-price contracts to commercial companies to take over much of the development process for various vehicles, including lunar landers. That’s a far different approach than NASA took during its previous lunar programs, including Apollo, the space agency worked with private corporations but kept much of the design and testing processes in-house.