Lunar Prospector, 1998
We had a new lunar mission called Lunar Prospector which was launched in 1998. There, finally, all that work that I’ve done on the Moon came back to be valuable again. I’ve been analyzing that since 1998.
I was one of seven scientists who were leading that mission primarily. Alan Binder was the primary person. I was involved with him over a period of ten years while he was trying to get something going to go back to the Moon. Usually he failed, but finally, very miraculously, he was able to get a Discovery mission for going to the Moon for a very low cost, only I think 60-something million dollars, which was a very tiny amount for a spacecraft.
It was a very successful mission overall. It was in orbit around the Moon for a year and a half. We’re still analyzing the data from that even now.
We started Lunar Prospector as a private effort, outside of NASA. When I was working for Lockheed at the Johnson Space Science, several of us got together to try to do a lunar mission ourselves, since NASA had completely abandoned the Moon and was not interested in it.
We had many reasons for doing it. One of them was to show that you can do a mission commercially, even though ours wasn’t commercial. By commercial I mean very low cost, very reliable, and get good data. As Prospector proceeded—we got to the point of launch and it was successfully in orbit—I spent a lot of time going to Congress and other people, trying to say, “Look, we need a data purchasing program, we need to take these missions out of the hand of NASA.”
My mission cost $65 million. Cassini cost I think two to three billion, and Galileo cost a billion. These are wonderful science missions, but the cost can be reduced by a factor of ten if you do it commercially. Everything NASA does cost ten times more than if you do it commercially. You know, 65 million dollars, that’s postage-stamp money.
If we are going to start to not only explore space but utilize space for the benefit of humanity, and utilize lunar resources for humanity and so on and so forth, it’s going to have to be done commercially. Therefore I applaud things like Spaceship 1, and a friend of mine who has bought the Kistler Rocket and built a space plane for commercial flights. These are the things that count.
I think the public can be engaged by the private sector. I had people calling me up asking if they could volunteer to work—sweep the floors, whatever. Of course they couldn’t because I was building the spacecraft at Lockheed. But there was that much of a connection between the public and what I was doing.
I did tours of the spacecraft as we were building it. I was Mission Director, and it only took two of us to run Prospector. It was a straightforward, simple spacecraft, which was my message. That’s the way I believe things should be done. I had people come in when I was doing orbital maintenance burns with the spacecraft, and they were thrilled. They could sit there and watch us running a spacecraft.