The Pre-History of Lunar Prospector

by Peter Kokh

1995 The Lunar Reclamation Society, Inc.


First published in Moon Miners' Manifesto #84, April 1995 as

"Lunar Prospector: a Cinderella Story for Space Advocates"

[What follows attempts to be no more than a sketch of the history of Lunar Prospector, necessarily related from the point of view of one involved early on. We apologize to those whose role might not be traced as fully as it ought to be, and especially to those not mentioned at all. We wanted to keep the story brief, yet touch as many bases as we could. To tell the story well would take a book. - PK]

During the Apollo Program, the orbiting command modules of the last three missions (15, 16, 17) carried a special instrument called a gamma ray spectrometer. It's purpose was to detect the chemical signature of various elements in the surface of the Moon along the command module's flight path. This gave NASA the information with which to make a "geochemical resource map" of the Moon. Unfortunately, the information gathered covered the equatorial regions only.

Some scientists had speculated that while the Moon is bone dry in general, there may be water-ice deposits in permanently shaded craters at the poles. (The Moon's axial tilt is only about one degree). If such an endowment existed, it would make it much more feasible to sustain a manned lunar outpost with greatly reduced dependence on expensive resupply flights from Earth. Water would be needed for drinking and sanitation as well as fresh food production. Further, hydrogen and oxygen produced from water would provide a refueling supply for spacecraft returning to Earth.

If water-ice did not exist at the poles, it was important to know that too. It wasn't possible to plan lunar development intelligently without a definitive answer. It became apparent that the top post-Apollo priority on the lunar science agenda was to fly a lunar polar orbiter with a gamma ray spectrometer.

NASA accordingly proposed the Lunar Observer Mission, with an estimated price tag of $350-$500 million. Congress would have nothing to do with it, not with any lunar mission. NASA requests for a start were rejected year after year.

Given this climate, in the mid-eighties several people at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California and Space Studies Institute (SSI), Princeton, New Jersey brainstormed ideas for a budget lunar polar orbiter that would answer the ice question. Jim French was the first person SSI hired in '85 to take a hard and technically credible look at what a small probe could do and what it realistically could cost.

The emerging consensus was that the job could be done for a tenth of NASA's estimate. In late '86 Gordon Woodcock proposed in the L5 News that the L5 Society find a way to build and fly a lunar polar orbiter. At the International Space Development Conference in Pittsburgh the following March ('87) $2300 was pledged to the effort. Of this only $750 was collected, and the newly merged NSS "sat" on the money.

At the Denver ISDC in '88, Peter Kokh and Mark Kaehny of the Milwaukee Lunar Reclamation Society set out to end the current inaction. At a late hour networking social, cued by Milwaukee expatriate Morris Hornik to Dr. Gay E. Canough Ph.D. (currently at State University of New York-Binghamton), Kokh asked: why not see if National Geographic is interested in cosponsoring such a mission, put together a team to design and build a budget probe with off-the-shelf instrumentation, in-kind donations, and raise the rest ourselves?

Dr. Canough's eyes lit up as if someone had ignited within her a bonfire pile long in wait of a match. Excitedly, we traded suggestions. In the weeks following the conference, Canough made call after call, looking for team members, available hardware, supporters and sponsors. MLRS concentrated on fundraising ideas, in the process floating several names for the probe. One of these, Prospector 1, caught on, the "Lunar" being added later. Name agreed upon, MLRS, then launched a nationwide competition to design a mission patch.

Meanwhile James Davidson, President of the Houston Space Society (HSS), announced a Lunar Polar Probe Conference the following March ('89) in Clear Lake across the road from Johnson Space Center. Davidson's idea was to bring all interested parties together, and to concentrate especially on a business plan to raise the needed money, estimated to be $5-$15 million to build the probe alone. Rick Tumlinson of SSI and the new Space Frontier Foundation took over publicity.

In the Interim, Canough had sold her project to Greg Maryniak, Executive VP of Space Studies Institute. Maryniak assumed overall responsibility. (Kokh, Kaehny, Canough, Davidson, and Tumlinson were all Senior Associates of SSI).

Kokh had brought all the entries to the Mission Patch Design Competition with him to Houston to let the conferees pick the winning entry. As it turned out, the favorite design had been submitted by Milwaukee area artist Bill Burt. After some conferee-suggested refinements, the Lunar Reclamation Society had 250 of the patches produced, thanks to a loan from Kenosha area member, attorney Robert G. Bramscher [died August 17, 2000]. The Houston Space Society adopted the artwork, produced T-shirts, buttons, pins, bumper stickers, and Lunar Prospector Team stationery.

More significantly, SSI convinced Lockheed to donate one year's services of its employee Dr. Alan Binder, to take charge of the technical team from Dr. Canough and JPL's Jim French; a $100,000 gift-in-kind value. Maryniak then got NASA to donate the spare gamma ray spectrometer that had been built to fly on the canceled Apollo 18 mission. This instrument, key to the whole mission, was valued at $3.5 million. With less help from the Milwaukee and Houston rag tag fan supporters than we had each hoped to contribute, SSI managed to raise some $175,000 to have Omni Systems of El Segundo, California, the proposed contractor, produce the blueprints and a full-scale mockup of the craft.

Several options for a launch were considered. Finally the Russians, also interested in the success of the project, and perhaps at embarrassing NASA, offered a free ride out to Earth orbit "as ballast" aboard one of their powerful Proton rockets. Getting from Earth orbit out to the Moon would then be our responsibility. This meant having to purchase a "kick motor".

In search of more money, Maryniak secured "letters of intent" for promotional investments from major commercial concerns. Everything looked good. We were still on target for a late 1992 launch during the International Space Year, ISY.

Then came the Bush recession. Hoped for money vanished, and everything, almost everything that is, was put on hold. Alan Binder managed to keep most of his Houston team together, now working as spare time volunteers.

When NASA announced the Discovery Mission Program to fly low budget well planned missions put together by people and sponsors outside the agency, Binder's team saw a light at the end of the tunnel. The rest is now history. Out of 28 very worthwhile submissions, Lunar Prospector won.

But none of this would have happened if it hadn't been for a couple of guys from Milwaukee, with a lot of help, of course, from those who had prepared the way before, and those who jumped in after they had lit the fire within Gay Canough. Gregg Maryniak comments: "Early believers helped advance this idea to the point where a credible set of mission concepts and even a spacecraft design was created which in turn, (1) convinced the architects of Clementine to map the Moon, and (2) gave Binder a leg up in preparing his Discovery proposal. To me, Al Binder is the real hero." We agree.

A happy ending to this story is not assured, however. Another Milwaukee area individual may put out that bonfire. James F. Sensenbrenner Jr. of the 9th District (north and west Milwaukee suburbs), chair of the House Space Subcommittee, seems determined to allow no "new starts".

It is ironic that we are to be punished for doing exactly what Congress had asked: come in with cheaper, faster, better, mission proposals. We did our homework. Data from Lunar Prospector could be crucial to decisions affecting the course of this country's space endeavors in the coming century. PK

Back to LRS/MMM Papers

Lunar Prospector Home Page

SCIENCE magazine report on Lunar Prospector Results