NASA selects companies for commercial Moon landing services
These initial Moon landing missions won’t be with people, but rather science and technology payloads as part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS). According to NASA, each of the companies will send a lander that carries payloads to the lunar surface starting as early as next year, marking the first time since 1972 that any United States spacecraft has soft-landed on the Moon.
“Our selection of these U.S. commercial landing service providers represents America’s return to the Moon’s surface for the first time in decades, and it’s a huge step forward for our Artemis lunar exploration plans,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine in an agency news release. ”Next year, our initial science and technology research will be on the lunar surface, which will help support sending the first woman and the next man to the Moon in five years. Investing in these commercial landing services also is another strong step to build a commercial space economy beyond low-Earth orbit.”
Astrobotic was awarded $79.5 million to fly as many as 14 payloads to Lacus Mortis, while Intuitive Machines was awarded $77 million to fly as many as five payloads to Oceanus Procellarum. Both are slated for July 2021.
Meanwhile Orbit Beyond was awarded 97 million, according to NASA, and proposes to fly up to four payloads to Mare Imbrium by September 2020.
“These landers are just the beginning of exciting commercial partnerships that will bring us closer to solving the many scientific mysteries of our Moon, our solar system, and beyond,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said in a news release. “What we learn will not only change our view of the universe, but also prepare our human missions to the Moon and eventually Mars.”
According to NASA, these early missions are designed to enable technology demonstrations to “inform the development of future landers” as well as other technologies for eventual human landings by 2024.
Under the recently revealed Integrated Exploration Manifest, NASA hopes to have at least one CLPS opportunity each year to send small payloads to the Moon. The idea is to accept higher risk for higher reward in low-cost commercial lunar landers while spurring a commercial market around the Moon. This would be similar to what NASA is doing for the International Space Station with the commercial resupply program.
In addition to CLPS, the human-rated lunar lander is also expected to be commercially procured. Moreover, the recently-awarded contract for the power and propulsion element of the Lunar Gateway is also slated to be a commercial procured item that NASA ultimately purchases.
NASA said this is all part of President Trump’s Space Policy Directive 1 which calls for NASA to return to the Moon sustainably with commercial and international partners. Since the challenge by Vice President Mike Pence to make the lunar return within five years, the space agency has split this directive into two phases.
The first phase is about speed and is expected to result in the first human landing since 1972 by 2024. The second phase is about sustainability and is expected to see the expansion of the Lunar Gateway and more CLPS and human landings that culminate in learning how to use the Moon’s resources before establishing a “lunar surface asset” by 2028.
Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a website about human spaceflight called Orbital Velocity. You can find him on twitter @TheSpaceWriter.