Astrobotic selects Falcon Heavy to Launch VIPER Moon rover
Astrobotic, a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based company specializing in commercial lunar freight landers, announced it has selected SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy to launch its Griffin medium-class lander to the Moon in 2023, carrying NASA’s VIPER lunar rover.
VIPER, or Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, is a NASA mission to explore permanently-shadowed craters at the lunar south pole region to determine if frozen water deposits exist there and that they can support future crewed missions and colonies on the Moon.
In June of 2020, Astrobotic had won the NASA task order to deliver the rover to the lunar surface on its Griffin lander at a value of $199.5 million. This award was the largest in the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services, or CLPS, initiative, which procures payload space aboard commercial lunar landers.
The task order specified that Astrobotic independently choose a launch provider.
“Getting to the Moon isn’t just about building a spacecraft, but having a complete mission solution,” Daniel Gillies, Griffin Mission 1 director for Astrobotic, said in a company press release. “SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy completes our Griffin Mission 1 (GM1) solution by providing a proven launch vehicle to carry us on our trajectory to the Moon. SpaceX has the team, vehicle, and facilities to make this happen.”
Before joining Astrobotic, Gillies served as a mission manager for SpaceX.
“Having previously sat on the other side of the table as a former SpaceX mission manager, I am fully aware of SpaceX’s capabilities and processes and am excited to be working with SpaceX on a mission once again,” Gillies said. “My first exposure to Falcon Heavy was as a SpaceX mission integrator on the STP-2 mission and I’m proud to be utilizing that same launch vehicle for Griffin.”
The mission adds to a sudden boom in the Falcon Heavy manifest after what has been a nearly two-year dry spell for the launch vehicle, the most powerful in operation today.
Falcon Heavy last launched on the aforementioned Space Test Program 2, or STP-2, mission for the U.S. Air Force in June 2019. Its next flight is to send up a classified payload, this time for the U.S. Space Force on mission USSF-44, is slated for July 2021, followed by another Space Force mission, USSF-52, in October 2021.
Falcon Heavy will then set its sights on more heavenly bodies between 2022 and 2024. June 2022 should see the vehicle launch NASA’s Psyche Asteroid mission, followed by the VIPER rover mission to the moon in 2023 and then the first two components of NASA’s Lunar Gateway outpost in 2024.
With this growing manifest, Falcon Heavy is emerging as a key player in NASA’s efforts to establish a long-term human presence on the moon.
“Gaining a better learning of resources on the Moon is critical to advancing humanity’s reach beyond Earth, and we are honored to support this exciting mission and NASA’s CLPS program,” said SpaceX Senior Director of Commercial Sales Stephanie Bednarek in the Astrobotic press release.
All future Falcon Heavy launches are slated to leave from Kennedy Space Center’s iconic Launch Complex 39A in Florida, which has supported all crewed NASA flight programs and Apollo Moon missions to date, a fitting continuation of the launch site’s prodigious legacy of Moon missions.
Work on the Griffin lunar lander is in progress with qualification testing planned to be completed toward the end of this year. It’ll be the second outing for Astrobotic, who’s smaller Peregrine lunar lander is slated to be the first commercial lunar lander in history to touch down on the Moon as well as the first American lander to touch down since Apollo 17 in 1972.
That mission, which is also part of NASA’s CLPS program, will also serve as the inaugural flight of United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan Centaur rocket sometime in 2021.
Nicholas D'Alessandro was born and raised in Southwest Florida. The seeds of his interest in Space Exploration were planted when the Shuttle's sonic boom upon re-entry would reverberate through his childhood home even across the state; the knowledge that a real life spacecraft was passing overhead and could have that effect was fascinating to him. A middle school field trip to the Kennedy Space Center cemented that fascination, and with an additional interest in the bleeding edge of automotive technology and Teslas, it was the story of Elon Musk's path to Cape Canaveral with SpaceX that finally led Nicholas to move to the Space Coast and, after joining Spaceflight Insider in 2020, begin documenting the dawning era of commercial spaceflight.