Astrobotic CEO John Thornton today acknowledged disappointment that the Peregrine lunar lander did not achieve its goal of landing on the Moon, but was upbeat about how they responded to the situation and what it means for the future. Later this year the company is scheduled to land a very expensive NASA payload on the Moon, the VIPER rover, and Thorton is confident that mission will succeed.

Thornton confirmed that Peregrine reentered Earth’s atmosphere yesterday at 4:04 pm ET, disintegrating over the South Pacific. The spacecraft was on a trajectory that took it out towards the Moon, but brought it back towards Earth during a phasing burn before it should have entered lunar orbit and descended to the surface.

Peregrine’s initial trajectory. Credit: Astrobotic

Shortly after launch, however, the spacecraft suffered a propulsion failure that meant it couldn’t land on the Moon.  During a media teleconference today, Thornton talked about how he went from the highest of highs on January 8 as the United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket put the spacecraft on a “bull’s eye” course, only to reach the lowest of lows when they realized the propulsion failure meant they could not land on the Moon.

An anomaly review board will look into exactly what happened, but for now Astrobotic believes a valve did not reseat itself correctly after helium was injected into the oxidizer tank and the tank ruptured, spewing propellant into space.

It was “a tough moment for all of us,” he said, “but what happened next was pretty remarkable and inspiring.”

First, the spacecraft was not oriented properly for the solar panels to get sunlight to recharge the batteries.  With just minutes before an expected loss of signal as the spacecraft moved out of range of ground-based antennas, a company engineer happened to arrive early for his shift and knew just the right command to send to change the spacecraft’s orientation.  Without that, the mission would have been lost immediately.

Over the next 10 days, Astrobotic regrouped and was able to activate 10 of the 20 payloads onboard, including four of the five from NASA, and get data from the nine designed to communicate with the lander.

Astrobotic developed Peregrine through a Public-Private Partnership with NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. NASA pays companies like Astrobotic for services to deliver NASA science and technology payloads to the lunar surface. The companies are expected to find other customers to close the business case. NASA paid Astrobotic $108 million for this mission.

Thornton enthused about how his company’s engineers dealt with the situation and how the customers and the public supported them.  When NASA announced the CLPS program in 2018, they made clear it was higher risk than many NASA  programs and each flight was taking “shots on goal” and a 50-50 success rate was acceptable.

The company has won praise for its transparency about what was happening, issuing more than 20 updates over the course of those 10 days.

Astrobotic was one of the first companies to win a CLPS contract and the first to actually launch a spacecraft. Peregrine was carrying 20 payloads from 17 customers, including five from NASA.

Customers on Astrobotic’s first Peregrine mission. Credit: Astrobotic

At today’s media telecon, Joel Kearns, NASA Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration in the Science Mission Directorate, said the NASA payloads cost $9 million.

The company also is developing a larger lander, Griffin. NASA chose Griffin to deliver a much more expensive payload to the moon, the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) mission.  NASA estimates VIPER’s cost at $433.5 million, but in a 2022 report, NASA’s Inspector General’s office criticized that cost estimate because it does not include the $235.6 million contract with Astrobotic to deliver it to the Moon.

Thornton and Kearns said today the launch is still scheduled for this November, but they would wait for the results of the Peregrine anomaly review board before finalizing plans.

Illustration of NASA’s VIPER lunar rover that will seach for ice near the Moon’s South Pole. Credit: NASA

For his part, Thornton said on behalf of Astrobotic that “we are emboldened” by all that happened with Peregrine and confident the next mission will go well.

“I can tell you that we are emboldened by this. We are excited by this. Certainly [this was] not the outcome that we wanted, but we’re motivated to make it successful next time. We believe we’ve learned so much through this process that we truly can do that. I mean, frankly, it was a fun adventure. Not one that we had planned. We got knocked a curveball right at the beginning, but it was quite an adventure for the last 10 days and I caught the space bug all over again.”

Peregrine and Griffin’s VIPER launch are only two of 10 contracts NASA has made for CLPS services so far. The next launch is expected next month, Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C. Kearns said it is up to the companies to announce when they will launch, but another IM launch and one from Firefly are possibilities this year.

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