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Season 3, Episode 2: Buying a Ride to the Moon, with Steven Clarke

Season 3Episode 2Apr 24, 2019

Steven Clarke, the Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration at NASA, talks about NASA’s plans to partner with companies for delivering new instruments and technology demonstrations to the Moon.

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Steven Clarke, the Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration at NASA, talks about NASA’s plans to partner with companies for delivering new instruments and technology demonstrations to the Moon.

Human Landing System Departing Gateway

Jim Green: Space Directive 1 tells us we’re going to the Moon, and then on to Mars. What are our next steps? Let’s talk to the expert that’s making the plans. Hi, I’m Jim Green, Chief Scientist at NASA, and this is “Gravity Assist.” This season is all about the Moon.

With me today is Steven Clarke, the Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration at NASA. What a fantastic title and job that is. Welcome Steven.

Steven Clarke: Thank you, Jim.

Jim Green: Well, today, I want to talk about NASA’s approach to getting down to the surface of the Moon and doing some fantastic science. You know, it really got going and got interesting when on December 11, 2017, President Trump signed the Space Policy Directive 1. Now that’s a really important approach for us. He’s challenging NASA to lead an innovative and sustainable program of exploration using commercial groups and international partners, and it’s all about going to the Moon, and then on to Mars. So this is really an exciting time, and Steven, you were right there when that happened and you got involved in this. Tell us a little bit about what happened next.

Steven Clarke:Well, the whole idea of going back to the Moon, or as we like to say, “going forward to the Moon” — it’s been exciting, and it’s been something that we’ve been planning for many years, but we’re actually going to go do it differently this time, which is even more exciting than what it has been in the past. We’re partnering with commercial industry in ways we have not done before. And what’s particularly exciting about it, from my position, is: I’m working with companies who are going to build small lunar landers and deliver payloads to the surface of the Moon. And we, NASA, are essentially buying a ride.

Jim Green: That sounds really neat.

Steven Clarke: Well, and we plan to be one of many customers, not just the only customer here. So, there are companies out there that are talking with these lander development companies to take all kinds of different things to the surface of the Moon. And we’re pretty excited about working with these companies and sending the first mission up there, here soon, in the next couple of years.

Jim Green: So the strategy then is to connect with the commercial companies. Well, you know, the commercial companies, they’ve been at this actually for a couple of years. That started with the Google X Prize.

Steven Clarke:Mm-hmm.

Jim Green:And so, what happened in that?

Steven Clarke: So, from what I understand a number of companies made it through various hoops that they had to, and pass through different gates, to continue to get funding from the Google X Prize Foundation. But ultimately, one winner was not selected.

Jim Green: Yeah. So that was all about, if you can make it to the Moon, you get a prize at the end.

Steven Clarke: That’s right. But some of these companies continued their concept and development work —

Jim Green: Right —

Steven Clarke: — and they went out and talked to various venture capitalists and other investors and continued their vision of building commercial lunar landers.

Jim Green: Well, you know, in a way, that Google Lunar X Prize concept really started that, in the sense that it made that investment, and even though we didn’t have a winner the concept is still very valid, and it’s international. There’s a number of groups that are doing this on an international basis, too.

Steven Clarke: Yes, that’s what I understand. And actually, some of them have reached out to me at various conferences and we’ve started just talking about some prospective ways we might be able to partner or collaborate here in the future.

Jim Green: So now we’re at the stage where we’ve got a number of companies that are moving in that direction. We want to join with them, we want to help them, we want to put instruments on their systems. And so we had to do something to connect with them. We created a program, we call it CLPS, right?

Steven Clarke: CLPS, that’s right, for short.

Jim Green: So, what does CLPS stand for and what does it really do?

Steven Clarke: All right, well, you know, we love acronyms right? And so-

Jim Green: That’s what NASA does.

Steven Clarke: CLPS, C-L-P-S, stands for “Commercial Lunar Payload Services.”

Jim Green: Ah.

Steven Clarke: And the key here is “commercial” and “services.” NASA will be providing instruments and technology demonstration payloads to one or more of these companies that we award delivery services to, and then we will provide these instruments to them. They will integrate them into their landers, and they are responsible for securing the launch and transporting our instruments or technology demonstration payloads to the surface of the Moon so that then we can operate them.

Jim Green: That sounds cool, but the first step was, of course, selecting the companies.

Steven Clarke: So we put out a call for anybody who would be interested in providing these services to NASA, and there were a number of requirements they had to meet in order to be awarded these contracts. And what’s different about this is, particularly from the science side of NASA, this is really a unique way we’re acquiring services, instead of just contracting out to a company or companies to build hardware for NASA. We don’t own this hardware. We are just literally buying a ride. So these companies had to pass through some of the requirements on this call that we put out.

It’s basically a catalog. And these companies had to meet the requirements to be awarded to be on this catalog. And now what that means is anytime we would like to send instruments to the surface of the Moon, we can put out what we call a task order to all of these companies — and there are nine of them by the way, on the catalog — and they can choose to bid on these, or not, and then we will assess their proposals and select a company to take our instruments and take them to the surface of the Moon.

Jim Green: So, who are the nine companies?

Steven Clarke: So, Astrobotic Technologies, Deep Space Systems, Draper, Firefly Aeronautics, Intuitive Machines, Lockheed Martin Space, Masten Space Systems, Moon Express, and Orbit Beyond.

Jim Green: Okay. Just a wonderful group. I’m just really happy about that. Now, are they all landers or is there some rovers in there?

Steven Clarke:So what’s interesting about this, the CLPS, what I’ll call it, is, it’s not just limited to landers. We will be looking to, what we call “onramp” onto the CLPS catalog, capabilities that other companies or even these original nine companies will provide, such as rovers like you mentioned, orbital assets — we’re looking at potentially doing science from low lunar orbit, or even communications and data relay satellites that can then provide a data link between the instruments that are on the surface and the Earth, so that they can download and transmit those data to Earth. So yes, this is a very broad capability-based effort that we’re doing with CLPS, and we’ll be looking forward to bringing on more capable assets onto this, as what we call “onramps.”

Jim Green: Okay. That sounds really neat. But as you think about this does this also open up the far side of the Moon? NASA’s never put anything on the far side of the Moon. In fact, I would say: we probably know more about the surface of Venus than we do the far side of the Moon, and we have a lot to learn there.

Steven Clarke: Yes, this certainly is going to open up the entire surface of the Moon, and the companies that are now on the CLPS contract, they will be able to land anywhere on the Moon. And so what we will do is, if you want to fast forward maybe a couple of years into the future here, when we put out one of those task orders I mentioned, we may have a specific area on the Moon that we’d like to go to, such as you mentioned — the far side, or one of the poles. And so we’ll put out our task order and say, “All right, we would like to go to this location on the Moon. We want to take these instruments, these payloads.”

Jim Green:Uh-huh.

Steven Clarke: “Please let us know if you’re interested, and if so, what would be the cost? When can you go?” And then, just like any other contract, we would assess and select a winner, and off we go.

We recently selected 12 payloads that are being provided by various NASA centers, and we put out a call to the centers asking for instruments that are near ready, or ready to fly right now, so that we would have instruments ready to go when the commercial landers are ready to go. And so, we selected those, and we also put out a call to the entire outside world as well, including academia, and anybody else outside of NASA, to provide instruments as well. In fact, we got the final proposals in, and we’re going to be looking to award those in the spring of this year.

So, we are building up a pipeline of payloads and instruments to take to the surface of the Moon. And as the commercial landers are ready to go, then we’re looking forward to flying those instruments. In fact, we’ll be releasing the first, what I’ll call task order, to those nine companies on the CLPS contract, late spring. So we’re excited about the progress we’re making.

Jim Green: Yeah, that sounds fantastic. And I’m delighted that we’re moving this rapidly. I know the science community is really excited about that, too. So, that’s really produced quite the buzz. But I perceive that’s just the start. You know, there’s a number of other things that are going on. What’s the next steps that we need to be looking out for?

Steven Clarke: Well, so we’re working very closely with the Human Space Flight directorate and also the Space Technology Mission directorate within NASA. And as a lot of folks know that the Gateway, which is the orbital platform that we’re going to put in what we call a near-rectilinear halo orbit–

Jim Green: Sounds neat.

Steven Clarke:It’s going to be a platform to do science. It’s going to be a unique platform to do that. And we’re already talking about being able to put instruments on the outside of the Gateway. And for the human space flight side, this is going to be an important platform where we can actually fly crews there. And by the way, this is going to be mostly an autonomous platform. It is not going to require humans to operate or maintain it onboard —

Jim Green: All the time. But there will be humans —

Steven Clarke: But there will be humans there–

Jim Green:Mm-hmm.

Steven Clarke: And they’ll go and Orion will take them there. And then what we’ll be able to do is, we can then transfer crews to the human landers that’s docked to the Gateway, and then land on the surface of the Moon. And then, what’s also good about this is then, when the crew is ready to come back up, we’ll have a reusable ascent stage, that’s in the plan, to come back up to Gateway. We could potentially refuel that there.

So. this is going to be a very beneficial platform, not just from a human exploration standpoint, but from a science standpoint as well. And, we can test out technologies that we want to be able to feed forward for our first human exploration of Mars.

Jim Green: So human exploration is building that capsule that looks like Apollo, it’s completely different, though. And it’s called the Orion spacecraft. So that’s coming along really, really well. And they’re building elements of that Gateway. In fact, international partners would like to join us. So what’s happened with international partners joining us on the Gateway recently?

Steven Clarke: The Canadian Prime Minister announced that he is supporting the Canadian Space Agency’s efforts in a long term agreement with NASA to actually provide a robotic arm for the Gateway. It’s a key piece that we need for various reasons. It’s been very beneficial to have those arms on the ISS, and so —

Jim Green: Also done by Canada.

Steven Clarke: Also done by Canada.

Jim Green:Just like they were on the shuttle.

Steven Clarke: I was just going to say —

Jim Green:Also done by Canada.

Steven Clarke:We have a long standing relationship with our Canadian partners–

Jim Green:Yeah!

Steven Clark:–on going forward with our various space exploration initiatives. So, we were excited that that came out, and certainly we’re talking to our other partners too. The partners that we developed through the International Space Station, we’re certainly leveraging those partnerships as well. There’s a lot of interest from ESA, from JAXA, really, and even some emerging–

Jim Green:Mm-hmm.

Steven Clarke: –space agencies as well.

Jim Green: Yeah, so ESA’s the European Space Agency and JAXA’s the Japanese Space Agency. So, indeed they have been tremendous partners with us on Space Station, and now, as we develop this Gateway that will go to the Moon, we’d like to have them along with us.

Well, this is just really the start of I think a, just, tremendously exciting program with small landers, larger landers, rovers, and a communication capability at the Gateway. And, as you mentioned, with the arm and the ability for the Gateway to grab samples, this then opens up the opportunities to bring samples back from all kinds of places on the Moon.

Steven Clarke: Mm-hmm. Absolutely.

Jim Green: So, I’m really looking forward to this upcoming era of really deep exploration of the Moon. The samples that come back will then be brought home in the Orion capsule with the astronauts, just like we did with the Apollo program. And I don’t know if you knew this, but we brought about 850 pounds of lunar material back–

Steven Clarke:Mm-hmm.

Jim Green:–from those six Apollo missions that made it to the surface.

Steven Clarke: You know, and speaking of that, Jim, we’re about to announce some awards on what we call the Apollo Next Generation Sample Analysis. So, there are some pristine samples that we still have, that we’ve been storing at the curation facility at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. And, we are going to award some grants to researchers that will open up a pristine sample. And what’s interesting about that, because I visited the curation facility a couple of months ago, is that we have a limited number.

Jim Green:That’s right.

Steven Clarke: –of samples–

Jim Green: We do.

Steven Clarke: And so we’ve been very careful and deliberate about opening up pristine samples, and making them available to researchers and so forth.

Jim Green: Saving some for the future.

Steven Clarke: Exactly.

Jim Green:Yeah.

Steven Clarke: So, that’s why we want to go back and we want to get samples, because we had what, six landings, right?

Jim Green: Mm-hmm.

Steven Clarke:And we took samples from six locations–

Jim Green: Yeah, the Apollos–

Steven Clarke: –which were mostly equatorial.

Jim Green: Yeah, mostly equatorial.

Steven Clarke: So there are so many other, you know, regions that we want to pull samples and bring back and examine.

Jim Green: Yeah, indeed. And this program provides the flexibility to go anywhere we want, including that far side.

Steven Clarke: Mm-hmm.

Jim Green:So that’s just fantastic. Well, you know, I’ve really enjoyed chatting about this program. It’s just been a fantastic new effort here at NASA. It connects, I think, far more into our commercial partners and international partners, and really is generating a lot of excitement. But, you know, I always like to ask my guests how they got involved in this, how they got into NASA. What was that person, place, or thing or activity that gave them a gravity assist? So, Steve, what was your gravity assist?

Steven Clarke: Well, that’s an interesting question. My dad was an Air Force pilot–

Jim Green:Mmm!

Steven Clarke: —and I recall he would bring home Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine. As a young child, I’d sit there and look at the pictures, and – so, I’m going to age myself here — I’d look at the pictures from Gemini, right? And Apollo. And then, as I got older and the Moon landings started, right?

Jim Green:Mm-hmm.

Steven Clarke: I would watch every hour while the landings would be televised live back to Earth.

Jim Green: Yeah, Right.

Steven Clarke: And it could be in the middle of the night.

Jim Green: Yeah.

Steven Clarke: My parents allowed me to stay up even during school nights–

Jim Green: Yeah?

Steven Clarke: –and I was just transfixed watching the astronauts–

Jim Green: History, history is made.

Steven Clarke:–and listening to what they were doing and what they were finding and what they were discovering. And with my dad being an Air Force pilot and being around aircraft, and then the whole watching the space program grow and going to the Moon, I knew then that I wanted to be a part of aerospace in some aspects, either designing airplanes or space. And that really led me to know that I wanted to get an engineering degree, which I did. And then I was lucky enough to have an opportunity to join the space shuttle program down at the Kennedy Space Center back in 1984, and it was a dream come true.

Jim Green: And you’ve been with NASA ever since.

Steven Clarke: It’s been fantastic. This is a very exciting time. Certainly I’ve had many exciting times throughout my career, but this is unique and I think it’s fun and I’m excited to see where we go.

Jim Green: Well, this has been a blast, I’ve really been delighted to chat with you. I’m delighted, too, that you’re involved in this program and that you’re leading this effort with CLPS, and really starting a new way of looking at how we do business in space, and bringing many more companies and hopefully more much more of the public along for the ride. So Steve, thanks so very much.

Steven Clarke: Well, thank you for having me, Jim. I enjoyed it.

Jim Green: My pleasure. Join me next time as we continue our exploration of the Moon. I’m Jim Green and this is your “Gravity Assist.”

Producers:JoAnna Wendel and Elizabeth Landau

Audio Engineer:Emanuel Cooper