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Peregrine Mission One

Season 1Episode 317Jan 5, 2024

The CEO of Astrobotic and NASA Deputy Manager for Commercial Lunar Payload Services discuss Peregrine Mission One ahead of its launch and landing on the lunar surface. HWHAP Episode 317.

Peregrine Mission 1: HWHAP Ep. 317

HWHAP Ep. 317: Peregrine Mission One

From Earth orbit to the Moon and Mars, explore the world of human spaceflight with NASA each week on the official podcast of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Listen to in-depth conversations with the astronauts, scientists and engineers who make it possible.

On episode 317, the CEO of Astrobotic and NASA Deputy Manager for CLPS (Commercial Lunar Payload Services) discuss Peregrine Mission One ahead of its launch and landing on the lunar surface. This episode was recorded on December 7, 2023.

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Host: Houston, we have a podcast! Welcome to the official podcast of the NASA Johnson Space Center, Episode 317, “Peregrine Mission One.” I’m Gary Jordan, I’ll be your host today. On this podcast, we bring in the experts, scientists, engineers, astronauts, all to let you know what’s going on in the world of human spaceflight and more. NASA is heading to the Moon. Under Artemis, NASA is working with several American companies to deliver science and technology payloads to the lunar surface. The initiative is called Commercial Lunar Payload Services. In short, NASA hitches a ride on a lunar lander, owned and operated by a commercial company to deliver unique science experiments and technology demonstrations that we’ve been dying to test out on the face of the Moon.

Launching to the Moon this month is a mission called Peregrine Mission One. It’s a commercial mission from the company Astrobotic out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, using their lunar lander called Peregrine.  It’ll lift off on United Launch Alliance’s, Vulcan Centaur rocket on its maiden flight, and is landing on the Moon to deliver stuff: science and technology, a lot from NASA, but quite a number of experiments from commercial industry and universities. On this episode, we tied in remote with the CEO of Astrobotic, John Thornton, and NASA Deputy Manager for Commercial Lunar Payload Services, Ryan Stephan, to talk about this mission ahead of its launch and landing on the Moon, diving into the lander, the mission profile, and of course, the science and technology aboard. With that, let’s find out about the Commercial Lunar Payload Services Mission, Peregrine Mission One. Enjoy.


Host: John and Ryan, thank you so much for coming on Houston We Have a Podcast today.

John Thornton: Thank you so much for having us. It’s an exciting time in space getting ready for our launch.

Ryan Stephan: Yeah. Thanks a lot for having me. I really look forward to today’s discussion.

Host: Yeah, seriously, A lot happening and it’s, it is very busy times and especially around the Moon. So to be actually be saying that out loud, that we’re going to be talking about this mission to land on the surface of the Moon is quite spectacular. This is something that is quite unique, Commercial Lunar Payload Services, a commercial lander. There are loads of payloads and interesting science and demonstrations on this spacecraft, and I know you guys have been working really, really hard to get prepared for this moment. But I wanted to pull back and really get our audience to understand just what this mission is by first getting to know you, John, as the CEO of Astrobotic. I can only imagine how your journey began to get you so close to launch, right? I guess what was once a dream is now so close to reality, but if you don’t mind just giving a brief synopsis of what led you really to this moment ahead of launch of Peregrine.

John Thornton: It’s been quite a journey. We got started 16 years ago, so I joke that we’re a 16-year overnight success. It’s been a long, long, long hard road. I mean, we got started around the time that NASA was canceling the prior Lunar Constellation Program. And here we were in Pittsburgh building a business to go to the Moon, that wasn’t supposed to work. But 16 years of just trying to show what we can do and building up the case and selling payloads and then our real breakthrough is when NASA came in with the CLPS program and open up the opportunity to buy larger payloads that completed our manifest. And here we are standing on the precipice of something that’s really been a dream for a long time coming. My entire professional career has led up to this moment. So I’m just so excited that we are now finally at the moment where I can say we are launching this month.

John Thornton, CEO of Astrobotic. Credits: John Thornton
John Thornton, CEO of Astrobotic. Credits: John Thornton

Host: Really true. But it’s such an interesting dream, right? I want to start a company and I want to go to space. I wonder, you know, when that dream was first being realized, going from a concept, an idea, to really starting a company with people, with contributors that are actually building towards this goal, this mission. I wonder, what drove you, of all the ways you could have participated in spaceflight, to start a company?

John Thornton: Yeah, I mean, we were coming out of Carnegie Mellon and I had finished my bachelor’s in master’s degree in mechanical engineering. And I met a professor named Red Whittaker who was starting up a team to compete for a thing called the Google Lunar XPRIZE, which was to be the first to go to the Moon, drive 500 meters, send back pictures and video. No one ended up winning that prize, but it actually ended up being a great platform to start the conversation and to build up some momentum toward making some early payload sales and starting to build the case for why that would make sense. But I can tell you that starting head up, we got a lot of funny looks and people certainly laughed at us along the way, quite literally, and to our face along the way.

So it’s been a challenging road and really it was when NASA restarted its Moon program, in the prior administration, there were some visionaries inside of NASA that really saw what could be done with the commercial opportunity. I think they created a fantastic program with CLPS and we’re going back to the Moon in a very, very big way. And I’m just so thrilled and honored to be a part of that and to have one of the first launches of that program.

Host: Yeah, it’s wonderful. You referenced CLPS, Commercial Lunar Payload Services. Really, NASA wants stuff on the Moon, so how do we get there? And it’s this very interesting way. Ryan, that’s where you are a part of. You’re helping with this initiative with the Commercial Lunar Payload Services. And I guess start off by kind of describing what that is, but really what I’m looking for Ryan is a little bit about how you got to where you are.

Ryan Stephan: Yeah, of course. I’ve been with CLPS basically since the inception of it. I’ve worked for NASA for a little over 20 years now, in various roles in terms of project program management and as a thermal analyst in the very beginning. My path to CLPS has been circuitous. I’ve worked, like I said, many different projects and programs, but I got involved because I had gotten asked to help lead the development of about a dozen or so payloads in preparation for this CLPS project. And so I got involved in the payload development, and then I’ve just kind of worked my way into a slightly different role in CLPS, where I’m both the payload integration manager for this particular mission, but I’m also the deputy project manager for CLPS. And so, as I said, I’ve been involved with Astrobotic since this initial award, which was made in the middle of 2019, you know, and here we are about four and a half years later, ready to launch this mission to the Moon.

Deputy Manager for NASA's Commercial Lunar Payload Services, Ryan Stephan. Credits: Ryan Stephan
Deputy Manager for NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services, Ryan Stephan. Credits: Ryan Stephan

Host: Yeah. And  I mean, that is not a small number of payloads Ryan, and I think it’s really telling to just show because I think this is what John was alluding to earlier is, you know, why build a company to go to the Moon? I think really what you’re alluding to is there are a lot of different things that we can send to the lunar surface.

John Thornton: Yeah, we’re seeing that kind of breakdown on our first mission. I mean, there are some big swans and some small ones in that. We’ve got hundreds of folks that have been a part of our DHL MoonBox program. Then there’s been a smaller number of larger payloads, CLPS in particular sending payloads up to the surface of the Moon. It’s really amazing to see the wide diverse approaches to going back. Sometimes it’s science, sometimes it’s exploration, sometimes it’s about commercial experience or marketing. We’ve seen a lot of folks that just want to put their name up there or send a message or a time capsule of some kind. It’s really interesting and I think we’re just seeing the very beginnings of a broad new industry for the Moon and the demand for payloads is large and small. So it’s quite interesting to see. And I think we’re still at the very, very beginnings of the industry. And I’m just so thrilled that our nation is embracing it. We’re taking a leading role. I think commercial approaches like the CLPS program is the right way to foster that industry and build it up into the powerhouse that it needs to be tomorrow.

Host: Yeah. I don’t think that was always the case, right? We have this idea, alright, let’s get these payloads, these scientific experiments, these demonstrations, let’s get them on the lunar surface. How are we going to do that? And so Ryan, if you’ll give us sort of a little bit of history, you said you’ve been involved with it since the beginning, when coming up with solutions, okay, how exactly do we do this? What was the process that led us to landing on why don’t we involve commercial industry?

Ryan Stephan: Yeah. So it’s really modeled on a terrestrial delivery service, you know, not unlike UPS or FedEx. And so the idea kind of evolved from that is how could we apply that model to delivering science payloads and technology demonstrations to the lunar surface in support of future human exploration of the Moon. So it largely came out of that. And so when we made our very first awards, again, it was in the middle of 2019, we went out and said, “Hey, we have these payloads available.” I think at the time we had 15 payloads that we wanted delivered to the Moon that would perform different types of science, different investigations, and also some of them were technology development experiments. And so we went out with the competitor solicitation and asked our existing vendor pool who could deliver these payloads to interesting locations on the Moon. In that first competition, we made two awards. One was this one to Astrobotic and the other one was to Intuitive Machines. And so, you know, fast forward, like I said, about four and a half years later, and Astrobotic is prepared to deliver five NASA payloads to the Moon with a total mass of about 15 kilograms.

Host: Nice. Yeah. So this is exactly what we’re going to be leading into is Peregrine Mission One. John, I wonder though, when Ryan’s talking about this solicitation, you’re building a company, you’re getting some customers, some clients, you’re working to build spacecraft and, and technologies, and then this solicitation comes out, “Hey, we’re NASA here. We want to send stuff to the Moon.” What made you want to, with Astrobotic, get into the lunar deliveries game?

John Thornton: I mean, at that point, it was a no-brainer when it came out. I mean, that was the business we had been trying to build since 2007. To have that come out in ‘19 and, and be able to compete in that, that was the dream. That’s all we could dream of is just having one shot, having a chance to show that we could do it. Of course, now we have that chance, and we’re standing right on the edge. Along the way, I mean, building a space business in a place that isn’t used to space, Pittsburgh is a new player in the space industry, to be able to build a business here, it relied on just enough people believing in us along the way at every stage, whether that’s was a customer coming in and believing in us, whether it was a part of a new tech contract that believed in us as a company, or an angel investor coming in. And in this case, when CLPS came in and said, we believe in you guys, it was the sum of all of those people that made this possible. And it truly was right on the edge of a knife all the way along there. But it’s really a testament to the people that believed in us along the way cause there were just so many that doubted it. And so many said, “Well, how could you possibly do what only superpowers have done before?” Yet here we are, and this is just the first of many missions that we have under CLPS. So it’s the dawn of a new era, and it’s so exciting that we have some true visionaries at NASA that recognize that opportunity and were willing to take that risk with and believe in it. We’re about to make some history.

Host: Yeah. I can only imagine the difficulty of trying to prove something that hasn’t necessarily been a model in the past. It’s sort of new in its own way. So, Ryan going over to you. I was thinking, you know, John is working on this new, this new idea, of course, NASA coming up with solutions, decides to go to the commercial industry route, decides to go this new route, new landers, new capabilities. I wonder as NASA, you know, what’s the level of involvement in terms of working together, collaborating, setting requirements for, “Hey, we want this stuff. Here’s what we need to get that stuff to the lunar surface.” I wonder where we come in as a team to accomplish this mission.

Ryan Stephan: Yeah. So that’s been one of the more interesting things of this, because I had described it to you as though, you know, we wanted this to kind of be modeled after terrestrial delivery service, right? So when you give your package to the delivery service, you’re pretty much hands-off with an expectation that on the other end, the package gets delivered. And we intend to apply that similar model to these task orders of which Astrobotic gets performed on two of them. That’s one thing that we’ve kind of struggled with, right? Cause we, NASA, have extensive experience in the development of spacecraft and, you know, a lot of successful, both human and science missions. And so it’s been a learning experience for us to try to understand how to provide guidance where appropriate, but also let these companies bring innovative and unique and interesting approaches to the development of spacecraft. And so I think through this process, it’s really been synergistic in that we, NASA, and we, CLPS, specifically, we’ve learned a lot by watching these guys perform. And then similarly, I think that we’ve been able to provide some of our experience and our lessons learned and provide that to our different vendors as they perform these task orders. Then it’s interesting to watch them come up with more efficient, streamlined ways to apply those different processes

Host: Yeah. Being so close and working together over those years, right? And of course, that sort of evolves. John, I know your company had significant growth just over the past couple of years. Just in order to meet these needs, we’re going to be talking about PM-1 we’re going to be talking about Peregrine Mission One, but you guys have stuff coming forward, like you said. So you’re growing your team in the Pittsburgh side?

John Thornton: Absolutely. Our partnership with NASA over the last four years has really been fruitful. And we’ve seen explosive growth. We’ve gone to less than 20 people, up to 250 people at the organization across two sites in Pittsburgh and Mojave. Our focus in growing that has been to build out the experience level and combine that with just some raw, amazing talent. So while the company Astrobotic has yet to fly space missions in space, and we’re coming up on our very first one, the people who work at Astrobotic are veterans of the industry and have flown many space missions before. So we’re mixing the new and the experienced together in a new way to try to forge a new path for this new frontier for lunar delivery.

Host: Perfect. Well, let’s get into how it works. Let’s start talking about this mission, Peregrine Mission One, right? This is the first one, Ryan, you mentioned up top as part of the Commercial Lunar Payload Services two companies were awarded Astrobotic being one of them. John, on your team, you know, you’re coming up with solutions and pitches in order to say, “Hey, this is our solution to bringing NASA payloads and other payloads as well.” We’re going to talk about those as well to the Moon. And you guys have the Peregrine Lander. Can you talk a little bit about this piece of technology?

John Thornton: Well, Peregrine is our delivery truck. It’s the vehicle that’s going to be launched on a launch vehicle directly to trans-lunar injection. It’s from there, a spacecraft going out to the surface of the Moon, it goes. Every phase of the mission is done onboard with spacecraft itself. So we’re a single stage all the way out to lunar orbit, all the way down to descent, and operating down on the surface itself. It is a power station. It is a communication station. It is a payload platform. So we are enablers of our customers. So whether that’s science, exploration, or marketing, or just pure technical demonstration, we see all kinds on our platform. So Peregrine is the delivery truck that makes all that happen.

Host: That’s right. How you described it is perfect. It not only does the complicated thing of taking a spacecraft from Earth and landing in this location on the Moon, but ultimately you’re a service provider. The goal is not just getting the lander on that surface, but getting the interesting science and payloads on that surface. And they have needs too. You said power, communication, right? It is the one-stop-shop hub for ultimately when they land. That’s exactly what happens. They land, that’s the location where it is. It’s not a rover. But it provides whatever the payload needs are as part of the full service of this commercial lunar payload.

John Thornton: You got it.

Host: Perfect. Alright. So you could have picked anywhere on the Moon, not anywhere, but there are a lot of different interesting places on the Moon to land. You guys decided on the “Bay of Stickiness,” and I purposely say that because, I think I’m going to butcher the name, but I’ll go ahead and attempt it now. Sinus…? See, I already knew I was going to butcher it. Viscositatis. Maybe you guys can help me out a little bit. John, what’s so interesting about this location?

John Thornton: Well, the most interesting thing about it is that our customers wanted to go there. In this case, it was CLPS and NASA. It’s near an interesting formation called the Gruithuisen Domes. And it’s going to provide some interesting insights with the combination of sensors that are flying with us. Really, for us, our primary objective on this first one is to land successfully. After that, we want to go where the payloads want to go, where the customers want to go. In this case that, that was NASA that directed us toward this site.

Host: And I think, if I’m not mistaken when it comes to this site, we’re talking about just the grand scheme of things. This is not a South Pole location. This is on the Earth-facing side of the Moon. We’ve got sun, we’ve got communications. How’s the terrain? Is it relatively rocky or is it nice and smooth? What are some of the considerations for this particular site? I guess what I’m getting at is really the operations and of landing safely and then ultimately delivering that wonderful data from those payloads back to Earth.

John Thornton: Yes. This a near-side location, and that’s really critical because that means we can do direct communication to Earth, i.e., we do not need a relay satellite. This first mission and these first CLPS missions in general need to be as simple as possible because flying to the Moon is already hard. We can layer on additional capability as we prove ourselves and build that up in the out years. So this first one is a relatively easy landing site. It’s fairly wide open, as far as we can tell, fairly benign from a hazard perspective from slopes and rocks. But it still is an interesting location for our science and payloads that are attached to the vehicle. So it’s really trying to find that sweet spot of getting the mission done for the customer, but also making sure that the hardest part of the mission isn’t made harder by trying to go to a really complex site.

Host: Yeah, exactly. Especially on the first go. Right? Of course, as we refine the technologies, you know, we can maybe try new things, but it’s that perfect blend, at least for this first go around. So, Ryan, I know you came from the payloads world, right? Obviously worked your way up and now have a management position at Commercial Lunar Payloads, as well as the payload integration. But there’s some interesting stuff on the Peregrine, and so there’s a lot to go over. But Ryan why don’t we start with you and some of those NASA payloads? There’s I think five.

Ryan Stephan: Yeah, that’s right. There are five NASA payloads on this mission. They kind of range, some of them are really science-focused to look at the composition of the Moon and any volatiles. And then some are forward-leaning into some of our human exploration programs. So the first payload that we have is called the Linear Energy Transfer Spectrometer, or LETS, and that’s basically a radiation sensor that will map the radiation exposure, both in transit to the Moon and then on the surface of the Moon, which will help provide data for future human missions to understand what the radiation exposure might be during those missions.

Then there’s a suite of science experiments or science instruments. I’m not going to get into long-form name, but the first one is called NIRVSS, which is  near-Infrared. So basically what that one will do is that we’ll look at any kind of carbon dioxide or methane that comes off of the lunar surface, and then we’ll also be able to accurately map the temperature of the regolith on the Moon at this particular location as we proceed through the lunar day.

The Near Infrared Volatile Spectrometer Subsystem (NIRVSS)
The Near Infrared Volatile Spectrometer Subsystem (NIRVSS). NIRVSS will measure surface and subsurface hydration on the Moon. These measurements can be taken while the instrument is moving. Credits: NASA

The next one is called a Neutron Spectrometer System, or NSS. That will look at water ice near the surface. So that will have the ability to look at any presence of water that might be at that particular location. And then the other thing that, that will do is that’s going to be an instrument that we fly on future missions to the lunar South Pole where we do expect to see water ice, specifically a mission, an upcoming mission to deliver a NASA rover to the Moon, that as robotics also going to execute for us. And NSS will be on that mission.

Two metal cylinders and blue cables attached to a metal, table-top platform.
The Neutron Spectrometer System (NSS) will determine the composition of the majority of the regolith at the landing site as well as measure the abundance of hydrogen-bearing materials. Credits: NASA

The fourth one is called PITMS which is a partnership with ESA, actually the European Space Agency, where they helped develop that instrument where they provided the actual science instrument, and NASA kind of developed a housing for that. That’s going to look at the lunar exosphere after descent, over the course of the day, will help understand the release of any volatiles.

The Peregrine Ion-Trap Mass Spectrometer (PITMS) is shown to the left in the lab being examined by a staff scientist; to the right, it’s shown with a model of Astrobotic’s Peregrine-1 lander for scale. PITMS will collect data to analyze volatiles in the Moon’s exosphere after descent, landing, and throughout the day.
The Peregrine Ion-Trap Mass Spectrometer (PITMS) is shown to the left in the lab being examined by a staff scientist; to the right, it’s shown with a model of Astrobotic’s Peregrine-1 lander for scale. PITMS will collect data to analyze volatiles in the Moon’s exosphere after descent, landing, and throughout the day. Credits: NASA

Then the last one is a Laser Retroreflector Array. And it’s basically a payload that consists of different mirror mirrors at different angles that you’ll be able to laisse from lunar orbit to accurately and precisely document the location of that particular instrument, and therefore Peregrine. So that’s the full suite of NASA payloads that are on this first mission.

Photo of a Laser Retroreflector Array (LRA).
This photograph shows a mockup laser retroreflector array (LRA) at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland, demonstrating the basic design: a metallic semi-hemispheric disc, with eight silica glass cubes embedded in its surface. Credits: NASA/GSFC

Host: Wonderful. Yeah. So there’s a lot, there’s an interesting mix here, and I wonder if you can help to break it down, because some of them sound very much like- a science and maybe even technology demonstration. You mentioned the NSS, right? Like, you know, making sure that this technology is ready for the water ice, very, very science driven. I wonder if there are operational considerations as well when it comes to some of these payloads, right? So you talk about lunar radiation, some of the mapping temperatures of some of the dust or some of the landing site, right? I wonder if not only this provides some scientific value, but perhaps, a better understanding of the surface to plan for better, more successful, more precise landing operations and perhaps surface operations for Artemis.

Ryan Stephan: Yeah, that’s a really interesting question. So, I had referenced a future mission that Astrobotic is actually also performing, NASA’s develop a developing a rover called VIPER. And that’s going to be delivered to the lunar South Pole. And that particular rover is going to last for about a hundred Earth days at the lunar South Pole to map water at the lunar South Pole. And two of the instruments that I had mentioned on this first mission, NIRVSS and NSS will also fly on that VIPER mission. So it’s interesting because the execution of these payloads on the lunar surface will help mitigate some risk for that VIPER mission. But you asked, an interesting question that is broader because Astrobotic through this first mission is going to gain valuable experience on mission operations, not only in transit, but also what’s extremely difficult is actually descent and landing softly on lunar surface. And so Astrobotic will have an opportunity to demonstrate their system and apply lessons learned to our upcoming mission. That will be a precursor to the Artemis missions.

Host: That’ll be extremely important, right? And I think what’s nice is that we’re talking about something that is so near-term. This is coming up very, very soon. And to have that insight to plan for Artemis is just going to be absolutely spectacular. You know, what I like about this mission as well, Peregrine Mission One is we just talked about five NASA payloads, but John, you and your team have been working look at and attract and talk to customers for getting interesting science payloads on this mission. You guys have quite a number of non-NASA payloads that are on this, both U.S. and international. There’s a lot to highlight here. We don’t have to necessarily go through them all, but I know there’s a rover. I know you guys are working with elements in the Pittsburgh area. You talked about building up Pittsburgh as a place for space and the space community, so getting more organizations involved in that. Can you talk about some of the highlights from the non-NASA payloads?

John Thornton: Absolutely. We’ve got 15 or so non-NASA payloads, and I think what’s most exciting there is that we’ve got six nations, other than the U.S. flying with us that will touch down on the surface the Moon with us for the very first time. I think that’s an amazing storyline and I’m very proud to be a part of that. And it’s fantastic that because of the leadership of NASA and building up this capability domestically that we’re able to bring the rest of the world with us. One of those payloads is the Mexican Space Agency, a fairly modest-sized agency, but now they’re going to be potentially among the top fifth nations to land on the surface the Moon with us and operate payloads. That’s incredibly amazing and exciting. They’re actually going to be deploying, five robots out to the surface and a really cool catapult payload, doing some co-location on the surface as a tech demonstration.

The other end of the spectrum, we’ve got a payload from the country of Nepal. One of the poorest countries on Earth is going to the Moon with us. We have partnerships with the schools of the area around Mount Everest that are sending some artwork. And as part of the capstone of this, they’re actually going to be bringing a piece of Everest and sending it to the surface of the Moon. And that comes full circle because there was actually a NASA astronaut who climbed Everest with a piece of the Moon rock. I guess we’re just trading some rocks there. I think that’s incredibly important for that nation and symbolic of really about making space accessible to the world.

Some other ends of the spectrum is Pittsburgh, as you mentioned. Pittsburgh is not a traditional space location in the country. I mean, you think of space, you think of Houston, you think of LA, San Francisco, Florida, Pittsburgh is not in that list, but we want to change that. It’s an opportunity for us to be an ambassador to the region, to show a whole new population that you talk about space and they look at you funny. Yeah space is a $470-480 billion industry that you can be a part of too. Helps get more congressional support and opens up more support nationwide for our space program. So we’re very excited to be the ambassadors to space to our region.

As part of that, we’ve got a payload from Carnegie Mellon University, one of the state’s premier universities, and they’re sending a rover up to the surface of the Moon that notably was built by students, completely built by undergrad and grad students at Carnegie Mellon. That will deploy and drop and drive away from the lander. Notably, hopefully it works and goes really, really well because it’s actually one of the only ways we can get a picture, a selfie, of the lander itself after landing. So that’s an incredibly exciting payload to be watching on that one.

It’s really remarkable, the creativity and the different approaches that all these different nations have. Whether it’s technology demonstration or creating a time capsule. There’s a drink company in Japan, for example, that’s creating a time capsule with hundreds of thousands of children from Asia and putting it in a powdered formula drink that they could mix with Moon water one day. It’s remarkable to see what people come up with when you show them that it’s possible to go to the Moon on a relatively affordable price point. I think we’re just seeing the beginnings of it. I mean, we’re seeing the people that believe in it before it’s actually happened. I think we’re going to see a whole new wave of new creative approaches and even more money going in this direction when we see these landings and we see the fruits of those outcomes in science and exploration and inspiration in marketing worlds.

Host: Yeah. You know, I think this is a really interesting point to hone in on. We were talking initially about all these different payloads that want to go to the Moon, but to show and to demonstrate even on this first go around, right, with one of the first missions as part of this initiative to land on the Moon, that really just setting us off on the right tone that, as part of this, there is not an exclusive opportunity. That this is a very inclusive method of getting countries, stakeholders, involved in being on the Moon and being a part of spaceflight. And you talked about even some of the poorest countries have opportunities through this particular method, really just getting this as a world event.

I think that’s really strong because I think the important thing to stress here, really what I’m getting to is this is not meant to be just sort of a one and done opportunity. CLPS is a part of an initiative, the Commercial Lunar Payload Services, to really increase that interest. If there’s interest, then there’s other customers, and then we can get to the Moon more often. And maybe just maybe Ryan, we can see a lot of those payloads that you were working on to go on the surface, because it’s part of a robust industry with a lot of demand. And I’m sure you’re seeing that on both sides. John, Ryan, I’m sure you’re seeing just on this mission right, I’m sure you had to solicit and get people on board with this opportunity, but because we’re so close to launch, I’m sure you’re seeing a significant amount of interest.

John Thornton: Yeah, we definitely are seeing an uptick on that. But speaking frankly, I think there still is some skepticism in the world. We need to show successful landings. We’ve talked about this for a long time. We’ve taken some bets on this with the CLPS program as a nation. Now it’s time to show, now it’s time to show results and that I think is going to be really opening up the next wave of opportunity. But one of the things, in particular, I’m really excited about that this accessibility opens up is it changes the game for our nations and even the world scientists. Traditionally for space missions, it’s not uncommon to go an entire career with maybe one chance to fly a mission anywhere in our solar system. This affords an opportunity for scientists to go back again and again and again. If we are seeing CLPS missions that land at least once a year, probably two, maybe even three times a year, depending on the cadence, that’s an incredible opportunity for our nation scientists to understand the Moon and to understand hopefully the next step, which is how do we use the resources on the Moon in meaningful ways to further spaceflight, further our exploration of the solar system and improve life back here on Earth.

Ahead of launch as part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative, Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander is encapsulated in the payload fairing, or nose cone, of United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket on Nov. 21, 2023, at Astrotech Space Operations Facility near the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credits: United Launch Alliance

Host: Yeah. Ryan, thinking from the NASA perspective, really, cause I know you’re working on a lot of different payloads, and there’s a couple on here, but you know, what John’s alluding to is we get to go again, and as part of going again, is more science, right? And so, you know, when you think about what is success for CLPS, and of course, you know, we’re getting off and this is the first mission, right? So the idea is we’re trying to have a proving ground and build something that is sustainable. But really, when you think about a sustainable future from a CLPS perspective, from a NASA perspective, what does that look like?

Ryan Stephan: Yeah, that’s a great question. I mean, that’s exactly what we want, right? We want a world in which companies, U.S. companies are regularly going to the Moon and routinely going to the Moon. And that we, NASA, we can continue to develop interesting and compelling science payloads, and we can basically just hitch a ride on an already existing mission. You know, we’ve made about 10 awards to date in the CLPS project. And for the most part, we’ve been the anchor tenant. We’ve carried the majority of the cost, we being NASA. But we do envision a world where these companies become more and more capable and this commercial marketplace kind of opens up, and that these companies are regularly going to the Moon and we’re able to say, “Hey, we understand that you’re going to this particular location. We have a science payload that could perform compelling science there, can we give this to you an affordable price point so that these scientists can continue to explore the lunar surface driven by this commercial model?” And that’s really the ultimate goal of CLPS, is to not be that anchor tenant, right? It is just to take advantage of these missions of opportunity to allow for more science.

Host: Right. And seeing the interest now just on Peregrine Mission One is I think a step in the right direction, just seeing how many different participants there are from commercial, university, international, U.S. It’s quite diverse. So, alright, let’s talk about Peregrine Mission One. Let’s go to the very beginning. John, I think how this starts is it starts, we have a new spacecraft on a new rocket. You guys are launching on a ULA Vulcan Centaur to kick off the beginning of the mission.

John Thornton: That’s right. A lot of historic firsts will happen on that launch. If this was a traditional approach to going back to the surface of the Moon, you’d probably see a traditional launch that has launched many, many times and has a great track record of success. But this is not that, this is a world where we operate under a firm-fixed-price contract that is small compared to what historically these missions cost. And in order to do that, we had to be creative. One of the creative solutions was to go on a flight that’s going be one of the first flights of the Vulcan Launch Vehicle, United Launch Alliance Launch vehicle. So that afforded us a good price point to get on the ride.

It takes a lot of energy to get a spacecraft of this scale to trans-lunar injection. So we needed a lot of the capacity. United Launch Alliance has a long history of success. The vehicle itself has a new name, Vulcan, but it’s actually based mostly on the Atlas V vehicle, a very successful storied vehicle. That’s what gives us comfort and the fact of course that it’s ULA and they’ve got a long history of success. So yes, we start on that launch and it’s an instantaneous launch to get right into trans-lunar injection. So once we’re deployed, we’re going to be close to the Earth approximately, but on a trajectory that’s out towards the surface of the Moon. And then it’s our job from there to trajectory correction maneuvers along the way to make sure we’re lined up just right with lunar orbit. And then we descend it down into lunar orbit, starting with a high orbit, and then a medium orbit and a very low orbit. Then we begin our descent, which is about one hour of autonomous nail-biting, thrilling descent down to the surface that will ultimately end in a successful soft landing.

Host:  Very good. Now the operations, right? Of course, launch is just the beginning, like you said on this on this rocket the United Launch Alliance has and is going to be demonstrating as part of this mission. You guys have part of it, you know, part of successfully getting to the Moon is the operations team. And I think what’s interesting is the ride is I think about a month, right? Depending on the launch date, you’re looking at about a month’s transit to get from Earth to the Moon.

John Thornton: That’s right. That’s the time between launch and actual landing down on the surface. Our trajectory takes about 12 days to transit most of that distance the bulk of the time is actually spent in lunar orbit waiting for the local lighting conditions of our landing site to be correct, i.e., we are waiting for local sunrise at our landing location. So we have to wait for the Sun to come up. The Moon does take about 28 days to spin around and have a full lunar day. So that’s why we do loiter and lunar orbit for a little while waiting for the sunrise. It’s going to be exciting, and the good news is along the way is we’re going to learn a lot about the spacecraft during the cruise when we’re firing the system for the first time when we’re operating in space for the first time with all of these systems. We’ll be doing checkouts and we’re going to learn a lot about the spacecraft before the critical maneuver of landing on the surface of the Moon. We’re going to understand the nature of our engines, we’re going to be able to tweak and refine our GNC Algorithms as we come in. So that first transit phase is really important.

Host: Very good. Exactly. And you have time to do it right. You have the time to check out all the systems to look at and just make sure you’re ready for those operations like you said, which are critical. You said it’s an autonomous operation. Once you get into descent an hour long to get through the unpowered descent, all the way to terminal descent, to actually land on the surface, what can we, the viewers, expect to see? You know, we’re going to be tuning in, I know we’re working together on covering and broadcasting these operations. What can we expect to see as part of these operations, these very critical ones?

John Thornton: Well, the first ones we’re going to be separating from the launch. So it’s going to be an exciting launch day down in Florida. Probably some awesome video coming out of that. You’re going to see some awesome celebrations of people, that vehicle has been in development for a very long time. This is the first opportunity for that flight. To take a flight to go all the way out to the Moon, the Moon no less. It’s audacious and exciting. Then once we’re in cruise, we’re going to see data coming back that’s going to be able to refine that spacecraft model as we’re going out.

But the real big exciting moment is going to be the landing. We’re going to have gathered in our conference room overlooking the mission control site right here in Pittsburgh.  We’re going to be gathered there with executives of the program and, and VIPs from our state and local area. I mean, I can’t tell you how excited Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania are. We just had the Mayor and the Governor of the state here. They were just gushing that Pennsylvania now has an opportunity like this. It’s just a big deal for a state and a region that was strong in steel and had big downturns in the seventies, eighties, to be able to rebirth itself in the way it has and now become a tech industry leader, and now have an opportunity to put a big exclamation point on that and get into space and lead our nation back to the Moon. So you’re going to have a lot of really excited faces looking through the glass, watching every, every moment of the drama unfold.

Then you’re going to see some really, really impressive, capable engineers at the kiosks or the desks watching every scrap of data come in, trying to assess spacecraft health and doing whatever we can possibly do to make it the most successful day we can for that landing. So it’s going to be exciting. I will be thrilled and terrified all at once because there’s a lot on this mission. But I am comforted by the fact that this is the first of many. This is just the beginning, the first commercial missions to go back. The good news is that CLPS has a whole array of missions set up and ready to go. I mean,, we heard from Ryan earlier today, there are about 10 missions that CLPS has awarded, that’s really important. This is a movement, and it can’t be stopped. It’s just these are just the first ones. So regardless of the outcome, we have already learned a ton and we’re going to be using those lessons learned for our next mission and our next mission after that.

Host: Definitely. Yeah. Very important. And the right mix of emotions for something so novel, right? And of course, as things develop and we refine those operations and get practice, and then as time goes on, you know, ideally it becomes a little less tense. You’re always going to have that. But ideally, as things go on, and like you said, it’s moving forward. We’re going, it’s happening. So ideally we get that. Ryan, as part of the payload aspect of this, right? We talked about the operations of Peregrine actually descending and landing on the Moon. But in terms of the payloads and from the NASA perspective, are there moments from an operational perspective of payload activation, can we see some of these being activated and gathering data as part of the transit period or descent period? Or really, are we just waiting for the moment that we touch down to go ahead and turn on the switch and start gathering some data? What exactly happens from the payload perspective?

Teams with Astrobotic install the NASA meatball decal on Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023, at the Astrotech Space Operations Facility near the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Peregrine will launch onboard a United Launch Alliance Vulcan rocket targeted for no earlier than Dec. 24, 2023, from Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. The lander will carry a suite of NASA payloads to the Moon as part of the agency’s CLPS (Commercial Lunar Payload Services) initiative and Artemis program. Credits: NASA/Isaac Watson

Ryan Stephan: Yeah, the payloads, they were all designed just like you would with any spaceflight hardware. They were all designed with the objective of minimizing the required resources. So we tried to minimize mass, we tried to minimize the data return back to Earth, and we tried to minimize the power that they would require, while also being mindful of the unique environment that this mission requires when you’re going to the Moon. You know, you go through extreme thermal transients where you can go from a very warm environment where the lunar surface is warmer than boiling water to a very cold environment where the lunar surface is like liquid nitrogen temperature. So the payloads were designed with all that in mind. And Astrobotic has a pretty nice offering that they’re able to give us spacecraft resources in transit. So we’re able to do instrument checkouts in transit to try to either calibrate the instrument to understand, you know, basically a background absent any kind of volatiles, so that we can understand what the instrument performance is. So each instrument is going to get an in-transit checkout. LETS, which is the radiation sensor, will actually obtain data during the entire transit out to the Moon. So we’ll be able to map what that radiation field looks like in transit to the Moon. We do try to minimize the demands of the payloads during decent. As John mentioned, that’s a critical mission phase, right? So we don’t want to be doing anything that would distract the lander from its primary job of trying to do a soft touchdown. So once we touch down, we will give the lander an opportunity to commission itself to go to full power during transit. And that’s when they’ll start to bring the payloads online. So within the first say half day or so, we’ll bring all four payloads up, and then they’ll actually start their mission where they’re performing science for the duration of the lunar day.

Host: Perfect. Yeah. So that happens relatively quickly after landing. That’s good to know. Now, I know part of the whole operation here of getting from the Earth to the surface of the Moon is really waiting for those lighting conditions to get to where we want to. And I’m sure that’s from the guidance and navigation equipment to land on a well-lit surface. But I guess one what I’m getting to is once we land John, what can we expect the operations of Peregrine to be in the sense that, you know, what is defining mission success of some of the payloads that are going on from the NASA and non-NASAs perspectives? What’s the length of the mission to properly gather the data we need?

John Thornton: So the first mission to the Moon, and these first ones in CLPS, are all going to be designed for single lunar day operations. And the real reason for that is that when the Sun sets, it gets down to liquid nitrogen cold. And what frequently happens, and we saw this during the Apollo era, spacecraft don’t like that really cold environment. You might get a solder joint that breaks or any kind of coefficient of thermal expansion difference between components, something pops. That’s probably going to kill the spacecraft. Batteries tend to not like that really cold too. So these early missions and this first one in particular is just going to operate for one lunar day. So we’re landing in the morning and we’re going to be operational for about 10 Earth days on the surface. So inherently the cadence of is very much accelerated, especially in comparison to say, a Mars mission. So as you heard, we’re going to be up and operational with all of our payloads within hours of landing. We’re going to have a flurry of activity cause everyone’s trying to get their payload and their science missions accomplished before the Sun sets.

Now in some cases, the payload missions have been accomplished just simply by getting there. Those are the payloads that are like the passive ones, like the laser retroreflector of NASA. We also have time capsules on board that just want to be there. Then we’ve got the other end of the spectrum of active payloads like the payload suite that NASA is sending, the rover that’s going to be dropping and driving often into the distance. Every one of those payloads has their different mission objectives. Our objective is as the mission lead here is to keep the power running and keep the comms up and enable success for every one of the payloads that comes with us.

Host: Perfect. Yes. 10 days, let’s get as much as we can. And there is so much to learn. And of course, I think this is a theme really throughout this conversation. This is the first mission. Lots of interesting things, but it’s really kicking off something for the future. And Ryan, you alluded to something towards the beginning of our conversation here is of course, we’re looking at these NASA payloads for this particular mission. But one that you mentioned is one of the next Astrobotic lander. It’s the Griffin Lander, but the payload is very important. It’s one called VIPER. Can you talk about this one a little?

Ryan Stephan: Yeah. I referenced it a little bit earlier during our discussion. So VIPER is a rover that’s being developed by NASA. It’s about 500 kilograms, so that’s just over a thousand pounds. It has a lunar surface mission duration of about a hundred days. The primary objective is to map the lunar surface for volatiles or specifically looking for water added near the lunar south pool. And so we’re really excited about that mission because it’s going to perform important precursor signs for the Artemis program. As I had mentioned earlier, Astrobotic’s also responsible for delivering that rover to the Moon. That mission architecture is slightly different. I had mentioned, Astrobotic’s delivering about 15 kilograms of NASA payloads on this first Peregrine one mission. But the Griffin mission’s going to deliver about 500 kilograms. So you can imagine that land is significantly larger. It’s also going to a very important location at the lunar South Pole, which is important because we think that that’s where resources are available. So we’re looking forward to that mission, landing near the end of calendar year 2024. One of the things that we’re excited about on Peregrine, not only the science that will be enabled by that particular mission, but like I said, it’s going to mitigate and address some of risks that will help Griffin be more successful at the end of the calendar year.

Host: Yeah, and that’s where I wanted to go to next is, you know, thinking about CLPS and how this evolves, right? In terms of Astrobotic, John, you’re not just producing Peregrine and Peregrine ops. You have different landers for different needs. And of course, Ryan alluded to this is Peregrine is a smaller lander, but when we’re talking ahead to the Griffin lander, this is just another class of lander to land larger payloads. He mentioned to the lunar South Pole, which of course is a very challenging area to land in. You got heavy shadows, you got permanently shadowed regions. There are a lot of obstacles in the way, but that’s the next thing you guys are working on is the Griffin lander.

John Thornton: That’s right. Griffin is an incredibly exciting mission that is the big leagues of lunar exploration and science in this era of going back to the Moon. People talk about game-changing missions. This really truly is a game-changing mission. If we can find water at the poles of the Moon, identify the quantity composition, we can then take the first steps toward understanding if that can be a resource for the future. And that’s a resource to drink. You can split it oxygen to breathe, but perhaps most importantly, you can split water and condense it and make rocket fuel. So we could quite literally be touching the oil fields of the Moon here. That could open up the entire Solar System to exploration, I imagine a gas refueling site at the surface of the Moon, that could supply orbiter tugs that can make getting to Mars and other destinations in our Solar System cheaper. Imagine one day using that fuel to send resources from space back to Earth. These are all made possible by this mission coming up. This is the groundwork, this is the mission that history will point to as the first mission that touched water at the poles of the Moon that led to just a massive game-changing shift in how we think about space and how we think about settling and exploring and using the resources of space for our own good down here on Earth.

Host: Very, very exciting times. And I wanted to take that and sort of end with this broader idea, right? And I think I’ve gotten a sense of just general excitement from both of you just on this mission, but really on the broader idea, not just of CLPS, but I think of exploration. So, Ryan, I think we’ll start with you. You said you’ve been working on CLPS since the beginning. You’ve worked on a number of different payloads. I’m curious to hear your perspective on the value of lunar science and an initiative like this. Why is it so important when someone comes off the street and asks you why is it important that we take these initiatives that we push forward to explore the Moon and the surface? How do you respond?

Ryan Stephan: Well, I mean, I think ultimately, you know, we as a human race, we are explorers. I mean, we’ve been explorers since the beginning of time. I think a lot of people will make an argument that the Moon is kind of a jumping-off point for further exploration into the solar system. And so I think that, you know, CLPS, I hate to be corny, but CLPS is kind of a first step or a launching point for those particular missions. We talked a lot about what Astrobotic’s doing, but you know, it extends further beyond that. It extends into the entire industry. I think about it a lot as we prepare Griffin for its mission. You know, we’ve matured a supply chain. There are people developing space flight hardware that maybe wouldn’t otherwise be doing it. So those vendors are now available to say the DOD or NASA or other NASA missions. And so it’s an entire kind of ecosystem that we’re developing and maturing for future exploration.

Host:  So, John, very similar question. You know, you said 16 years ago, started Astrobotic, obviously dreaming about it before that to actually get to that start. Now we’re so close to the first mission only thinking ahead to how this is going to evolve and change. And this is not just a one and done. We’re, we’re pushing forward. And it’s a very exciting time. And you mentioned how many people are involved just on Peregrine, but really, the expanding the customer base and who this is for, from your perspective, why do you think it’s important to explore the Moon? Why do you think it’s important to push ourselves to do these unique and amazing things?

John Thornton: My answer to that has evolved over 16 years. When I first got started, I just thought it was cool to go to the Moon and that was enough for me. But over time, I’ve realized how important and truly groundbreaking it really is. I believe in a future where humanity is not limited by this Earth’s resources. We routinely have gone above and beyond in terms of extracting resources and stretching the capacity of this Earth. But if you look outwards and upwards starting with the Moon and out into our Solar System, there are vast, vast quantities of resources that just blow your mind for the sheer scale of that. And if we can reach those and if we can harness that and bring that back here to Earth, we can provide a future for generations to come where resources are provided by space. Rather than digging up our delicate blue planet, the only place in our Solar System or anywhere nearby that can support life. I’m excited to be a part of that, to build the very early foundation stones to that grand future. I recognize that’s a long way out. But we’ve got to start. I think these first steps are how we get there. The Moon is the natural progression of humanity’s reach into space.

Host: It’s refreshing to talk to you both cause I’m getting this sense of not just being focused on this near-term future, but really a lot of what drives all of the work that got us to this moment right ahead of launch, to eventually land on the Moon, was I think part of a grander vision and a belief in the science and the value of going, of exploring. So hearing from you both, not just on this mission, but on your perspective of why we’re doing this, has been really enlightening and kind of empowering in a way for me. I appreciate both of your time. To John, to Ryan, thank you so much for coming on Houston We Have a Podcast and talking about not only this mission, but really the inspiration for what’s to come. Thank you both.

John Thornton: for having us. It’s been a pleasure.

Ryan Stephan: Yeah, thank you very much.


Host: Hey, thanks for sticking around. Really fascinating conversation with John and Ryan about all the work that went into preparing for this mission. I hope you’ll tune into to find the latest on the launch and landing times of Peregrine Mission One. Not the first time we’ve talked about Commercial Lunar Payload Services. We kicked it off on Episode 158, with an episode called “Moon Deliveries.” If you want to take a step back and learn the program back in its infancy. But of course, you can listen to any of our podcasts at That’s where you can find our show and listen to any of our episodes in no particular order. If you want to talk to us on social media, we’re on the NASA Johnson Space Center pages of Facebook, X, and Instagram, and you can use #AskNASA on your favorite platform to submit an idea for the show, just make sure to mention it’s for us at Houston We Have a Podcast. This episode was recorded on December 7, 2023. Thanks to Will Flato, Dane Turner, Abby Graf, Jaden Jennings, Nilufar Ramji, Alivia Chapla, and Audra Mitchell. And of course, thanks again to John Thornton and Ryan Stephan for taking the time to come on the show. Give us a rating and feedback on whatever platform you’re listening to us on and tell us what you think of our podcast. We’ll be back next week.