The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

LRO illustration
The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission has at times been caught in the conflicting demands of the agency’s science and exploration directorates. (credit: NASA)

An atmosphere of coopetition: the interactions of science and exploration aboard the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter

As our national space program prepares to send humans back to the Moon and eventually on to Mars, the collaboration between science and human spaceflight demanded by the US Space Exploration Policy (formerly known as the “Vision”) and the nascent, evolving Constellation Program is critical. The just-launched Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) is NASA’s first mission as part of the new Exploration Policy, and is inherently connected to both the “Science” and “Exploration” communities. We have spent the past year studying the scientific, technical, and policy interactions between LRO team members on both NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate (ESMD) and Science Mission Directorate (SMD) sides of the project. Our study has been conducted through the lens of team members and associates working with the LRO Cameras (LROC) team. Our major finding is that by working together through an atmosphere of oscillating cooperation and competition—a term some refer to as “coopetition”—the interactions between these communities have had a tangible, positive effect on the LRO mission.

LRO is under the responsibility of ESMD for its first-year “Exploration Mission” phase. Since the earliest stages of mission planning, the highest priority goals of LRO have been to support future human spaceflight. Perhaps ironically, this support will be achieved primarily through scientific investigations of the lunar environment, and all of the instruments aboard the spacecraft will be run by scientists. In fact, after one year of operation, the spacecraft will be handed off to SMD for an extended “Science Phase” mission. The mere fact that LRO will be transferred from ESMD to SMD demonstrates that there is an apparent disconnect between exploration and science within the organization of the Constellation Program, and provides some tangible evidence of how complicated this relationship can become.

The language of coopetition

The LRO team appears to have been given contradictory messages about the roles of “science” and “exploration” since the beginning of the mission. Early on, exploration was the only professed goal of LRO. As the mission progressed, however, the project has more and more stressed the impressive potential for science and exploration to be mutually enabling. In our interviews, members of the LRO instrument teams recall the early distinction between exploration and science quite clearly. One co-investigator for the LROC explains, “this was announced as an ESMD mission with ESMD objectives, and that’s how everything was defined here; it wasn’t science. In fact, the game was to not use the ‘s’ word.” Other co-investigators and scientists expressed similar opinions, one stating that during the initial stages of LRO “science was, kind of, a dirty word— you didn’t say ‘science’.”

One co-investigator for the LROC explains, “this was announced as an ESMD mission with ESMD objectives, and that’s how everything was defined here; it wasn’t science. In fact, the game was to not use the ‘s’ word.”

Yet even though it wasn’t directly discussed, scientists on the team always had–not surprisingly–science on their minds. For example, it was clear even early in the project that ESMD would not utilize the full 300 Gbits of LRO’s information storage capacity solely through the collection of data on landing sites and potential in situ resources. There was always going to be “room for science,” and everybody knew it. Although it may have been necessary to focus initial attention on the exploration goals, it seems unnecessary and perhaps even damaging to have had a period of time during which individuals were “afraid” to participate in dialogue regarding science. This produced the illusion of an exaggerated disconnect between science and exploration goals.

The language used to describe the exploration and science goals more recently has been drastically different. When ESMD or Constellation officials talk to the science teams, they give the “scientific rationale” for their preferences, and when LROC scientists describe their scientific interests to ESMD officials (and even more interestingly, to each other) they point out the motivations of their research that touch upon the goals of long-term human exploration. These types of messages, stressing cooperation, are now prevalent throughout presentations and conversations at all levels of LROC and LRO management.

Yet hints of the early separation between science and exploration remain. Particularly enlightening is the introduction to a presentation given by an SMD representative to the LRO Project Science Working Group in September 2008. The first slide reads: “Quick Reminder: Science enables Exploration, Exploration enables Science.” One has to wonder, why does everyone need to be reminded?

The primary objectives of the mission have remained the same; however, as the instruments were developed and their capabilities explored more thoroughly, their scientific potential was given much more attention across the NASA community, including within the ranks of ESMD. In the beginning, “science” was a dirty word, yet as the launch approached, “science enabled exploration.”

LROC targets for Constellation

Detailed lunar morphological, mineralogical, and regolith datasets will be obtained through the high-resolution imaging conducted by the LROC system. Targets are defined for the camera by both ESMD representatives and the scientists on the instrument team. The Constellation Program has derived a list of 50 priority-one sites to target for information to help narrow down the choices for future landing sites and possibly a potential lunar outpost. As a starting point, the group relied heavily on the extensive work that has previously been conducted to identify potential regions of interest for this type of project, including recommendations from numerous independent and international workshops and studies.

LROC scientists have created a much more extensive database of targets for the instrument, mostly focusing on regions which relate to their scientific interests. While a number of these targets are also important for ESMD plans, the target parameters are being designed to satisfy science observation requests, and they are not chosen for their relation to ESMD goals. One scientist claimed this group of targets is a way for the science team to say “OK, what do we really want to look at?”

An atmosphere of fluctuating cooperation and competition—“coopetition”—appears to have developed between the two major stakeholders in the LRO project.

As we analyzed discussions among LRO team members on the set of ESMD targets, a disconnect began to appear between the messages that ESMD representatives offered and the emotions that science team members expressed. A number of scientists on the team expressed resentment that they did not play a bigger role in helping to choose the Constellation targets. Some feel left out, as if ESMD did not treat them as the valuable resource that they could have been. Others simply claim that their lack of involvement in the Constellation target selection process reflects the fact that ESMD doesn’t really know what they want, or doesn’t understand the engineering constraints of their requests. This resentment exists even though there have been presentations by Constellation officials to the LROC scientists that, while not necessarily asking for specific target sites, have certainly asked for input and suggestions. When pressed on this point, most of the LROC scientists admit that Constellation officials have seemed interested in receiving input, but pointed out that there is no real mechanism through which to contribute.

On a larger scale, it appears that exploration goals and interests are clearly defined and understood. However, there seems to be some misunderstanding when looking at the situation on a smaller scale, specifically relating to cooperative tasks between scientists and exploration engineers who will actually do the business of conducting the mission.

An atmosphere of coopetition

An atmosphere of fluctuating cooperation and competition—“coopetition”—appears to have developed between the two major stakeholders in the LRO project. The dichotomy of coopetition can be epitomized through the LROC scientists who express feelings of being uninvolved, left out, and disconnected, while the presentations happening in front of them, and even the presentations they are giving, focus on highlighting collaboration and mutual gain.

From one standpoint, each group seems conscious of the other’s objectives and interests—they speak of them directly. Yet, by examining team member comments, certain disconnects can clearly be observed between individuals in the two communities. ESMD and SMD not only share the cost of mission development and operation, but also the entire spacecraft, operation teams, and instrument hardware. Both NASA directorates, however, simultaneously maintain their fundamentally different philosophies and goals for lunar investigations.

Many of these goals overlap, and in fact, often the same image data can (and will) be used to accomplish both. Still, competition develops as goals and targets are treated separately and the mission is broken into distinct “exploration” versus “science” phases. This process forces science and exploration to seem much more independent than they actually are. It instills an impression of separation and autonomy that creates an embellished image of two groups, working to fulfill two distinct sets of goals.

Still, competition develops as goals and targets are treated separately and the mission is broken into distinct “exploration” versus “science” phases. This process forces science and exploration to seem much more independent than they actually are.

However, and perhaps surprisingly, this disconnect has actually allowed a positive, powerful, and likely unintended dynamic to form. The buffer between science and exploration allows the LROC team to conduct science roughly as though it were a pure science mission. At the same time, ESMD will acquire the data they need. Furthermore, since the priorities were made clear from the start, there is no confusion on which goals should take precedence. As coopetive forces help to maintain the division between science and exploration on LRO, they have concurrently enabled a mission which will allow both to thrive.


Our study of the linkages between the Exploration and Science communities on the LRO project has focused on the LROC team, and has shown that the instrument, run by scientists and substantiated by the goals of exploration, is operating almost as if two independent missions are simultaneously being planned for the same spacecraft. While the science team is “focused on science,” Constellation Program officials have developed their own list of top priority targets that will assist in the planning for future human expeditions to the lunar surface.

Ironically, this environment may foster even greater scientific achievements than if LRO science goals had been pursued in conjunction with ESMD exploration goals from the beginning, because both groups could have made potentially unnecessary compromises to their own goals and procedures. While a clear priority system ensures ESMD will obtain the data they need, the buffer between the groups has allowed the veteran scientists running the instrument teams to plan to do, nearly uninhibitedly, what they do best: science.

Importantly, our analysis reveals that this does not mean that ESMD and SMD should just set up separate camps and work to fulfill the US space exploration policy independently. A spirit of “coopetition” between Exploration and Science can be beneficial under circumstances similar to those encountered in the LRO mission. Apparently, ESMD and SMD do not necessarily need to work together on every decision for their joint ventures. If each community feels involved in and responsible for the pieces of a mission that relate to their respective goals, success can be achieved. As long as mission priorities are made clear from the beginning, the LRO experience demonstrates that a type of cooperation can be enabled between the mission Directorates that fosters the maximum benefits for both.