During a public event held today (Nov. 29), the agency unveiled nine new partners that will be designing and building lunar landers aimed at facilitating scientific exploration of the moon. In addition to the specific companies chosen, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine also announced that the program running those contracts — the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program — is now part of the science section of NASA’s bureaucracy, not the human exploration section.
But under this approach, NASA won’t be alone in hiring these companies — the agency hopes to spur development that the commercial sector can also utilize. “We want to be first customers, not only customers,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s head of the science mission directorate, said during the event.
The agency did not provide any details about the choices beyond what the selected companies were: Astrobotic Technology Inc., Deep Space Systems, Draper, Firefly Aerospace Inc., Intuitive Machines LLC, Lockheed Martin Space, Masten Space Systems, Inc., Moon Express and Orbit Beyond.
When asked what information companies had to provide in order to participate in the program and how NASA chose the winners, Zurbuchen did not go into specifics. “We went with a really broad set of criteria,” he said, adding that those criteria “ask questions about the overall liability of the companies, their likelihood to be able to deliver these services, but we did not go in very deep depth relative to the technical capability.”
All told, NASA is planning for the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program as a whole to encompass contracts totalling up to $2.6 billion over the course of 10 years, although NASA spokesperson Cheryl Warner wrote in an email to Space.com that each company will receive at least $25,000 through the program, with the value of individual contracts varying in accordance with the service the company will provide.
“These nine companies will bid on and be paid through task orders issued by NASA starting in the near future,” Warner wrote. (The agency has said that it intends for the first flight to occur next year.) “Services they provide NASA will cover payload integration and operations, launch and landing on the Moon.”
NASA has been working to encourage private interest in the moon as a way to reduce the agency’s own costs as it looks to return to human exploration, first at the moon and then at Mars. That goal is meant to facilitate NASA’s timeline of landing humans on the moon during the 2020s.
Last year, President Trump signed a directive that tasked NASA with returning to the moon — an effort that Vice President Pence and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine have repeatedly backed. And that goal is set to include commercial companies, which will partner with NASA on moon missions and beyond. “Working with US companies is the next step to achieving long-term scientific study and human exploration of the moon and Mars,” the agency has said, and today, Bridenstine announced which companies NASA plans to partner with as it works towards a return to the moon.
The next time NASA heads to the moon, its equipment and experiments will be carried by spacecraft provided by one of nine commercial firms that are now part of its new Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. And they’ll now be able to bid on missions to deliver payloads to the moon. Lockheed Martin, a recognizable name in this space, is among those eligible for missions, but the other companies aren’t as well-known. They include Astrobotic Technology, Deep Space Systems, Draper, Firefly Aerospace, Intuitive Machines, Masten Space Systems, Moon Express and Orbit Beyond.
Bridenstine said the goal is to have multiple providers that can compete on both cost and innovation. “We’re doing something that’s never been done before,” he said during the announcement today. NASA will consider factors like technical feasibility, price and schedule when it assesses bids, and the CLPS contracts have a combined maximum value of $2.6 billion over the next 10 years.
The US isn’t the only country setting its sights on the moon. China, Japan and Israel all have moon missions in the works as well.
NASA says lunar missions could take place as early as next year, and it put in a call for lunar study proposals in October. “These early missions will enable important technology demonstrations that will inform the development of future landers and other exploration systems needed for humans to return to the lunar surface, and help prepare the agency to send astronauts to explore Mars,” the agency said. NASA may also offer additional companies contracts with the CLPS program going forward.
“Today’s announcement marks tangible progress in America’s return to the moon’s surface to stay,” said Bridenstine. “The innovation of America’s aerospace companies, wedded with our big goals in science and human exploration, are going to help us achieve amazing things on the Moon and feed forward to Mars.”