NASA asked the National Research Council (NRC) to provide guidance on the scientific challenges and opportunities enabled by a sustained program of robotic and human exploration of the Moon during the period 2008-2023 and beyond as the VSE evolves. This report was prepared by the Committee on the Scientific Context for Exploration of the Moon (brief biographies of the committee are presented in Appendix F).

The framework of the VSE was changing while this report was being prepared. However, the committee believes that its scientific rationale for lunar science and its goals and recommendations are independent of any particular programmatic implementation.

It is the unanimous consensus of the committee that the Moon offers profound scientific value. The infrastructure provided by sustained human presence can enable remarkable science opportunities if those opportunities are evaluated and designed into the effort from the outset. While the expense of human exploration cannot likely be justified on the basis of science alone, the committee emphasizes that careful attention to the science opportunity is very much in the interest of a stable and sustainable lunar program. In the opinion of the committee, a vigorous near-term robotic exploration program providing global access is central to the next phase of scientific exploration of the Moon and is necessary both to prepare for the efficient utilization of human presence and to maintain scientific momentum as this major national program moves forward.


According to the committee’s statement of task (see Appendix A):

The current study is intended to meet the near-term needs for science guidance for the lunar component of the VSE…. [T]he primary goals of the study are to:

  1. Identify a common set of prioritized basic science goals that could be addressed in the near-term via the LPRP2 program of orbital and landed robotic lunar missions (2008-2018) and in the early phase of human lunar exploration (nominally beginning in 2018); and

  2. To the extent possible, suggest whether individual goals are most amenable to orbital measurements, in situ analysis or instrumentation, field observation or terrestrial analysis via documented sample return.

Also outlined in the statement of task are the overall science scope for this study and several secondary tasks.

Overarching Themes

The committee identified four overarching themes of lunar science: early Earth-Moon system, terrestrial planet differentiation and evolution, solar system impact record, and lunar environment. The committee then constructed eight science concepts that address broad areas of scientific research. Each is multicomponent and is linked to different aspects of the overarching themes of lunar science.

The committee approached the challenge of prioritization by developing a hierarchy of priority categories. It used the prioritization criteria adopted by the decadal survey New Frontiers in the Solar System: An Integrated Exploration Strategy3 as a guideline: the criteria are scientific merit, opportunity, and technological readiness.

The committee thus structured the prioritization of goals called for in the statement of task along three lines: (1) prioritization of science concepts, (2) prioritization of science goals, and (3) specific integrated high-priority recommendations. Although the rationales for these three are linked throughout the discussion of this report, the implementation requirements are different. As requested in the statement of task, the priorities and recommendations presented in this report relate to the near-term implementation of the VSE, which includes the robotic precursors and initial human excursions on the Moon. Planning for and implementing longer-term scientific activities on the Moon are beyond the scope of this study.


The Lunar Precursor and Robotic Program (LPRP) was how robotic missions were identified in the NASA letter that requested this study. The LPRP terminology is no longer in use.


National Research Council, New Frontiers in the Solar System: An Integrated Exploration Strategy, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2003.

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement