NASA takes a tangible step back toward the Moon with commercial program

NASA announced Thursday that it has partnered with nine companies to enable the delivery of small scientific payloads to the lunar surface. No money was exchanged up front, but the space agency said these companies would now be eligible to “bid” for contracts to deliver select experiments to the Moon.

The space agency made the lunar announcement with considerable fanfare, devoting an hour-long ceremony to questions from children, an astronaut in Houston bouncing on a wire to simulate lunar gravity, and other activities.

Beneath the pomp and circumstance, however, two factors stood out. One is that the science arm of NASA, the Science Mission Directorate, is getting more involved in funding lunar science experiments through this program. “The Moon is full of secrets that we don’t know yet,” Thomas Zurbuchen, who oversees scientific activities for NASA, said Thursday. And secondly, the government is taking a concrete step toward funding commercial activities on the Moon.

The companies

The nine companies that earned the right to bid on what are called Commercial Lunar Payload Services contracts are:

Most of these are not a surprise, as companies like Astrobotic, Masten Space Systems, and Moon Express have been working on delivering small payloads to the Moon for some time. One relative surprise was “Orbit Beyond,” but it turns out this company is a consortium of mostly familiar entities also involved in lunar delivery—TeamIndus, Advanced Space, Honeybee Robotics, Ceres Robotics Inc., and Apollo Fusion.

NASA said payload delivery could begin as early as 2019. These contracts do not have a time or quantity limit, and they have a combined maximum contract value of $2.6 billion during the next 10 years. The agency said it would look at a number of factors when comparing the bids, such as “technical feasibility, price, and schedule.”

What this means

Under President Trump, NASA has sought to refocus its exploration efforts on going to the Moon first and testing technology there for eventual human missions to Mars. But the space agency is also interested in determining what resources on the Moon could enable its long-term colonization, provide rare metals needed on Earth, or possibly provide rocket fuel for missions elsewhere in the Solar System.

To do this, the agency needs more data about the potential for these resources, water in particular. Earlier this year, NASA canceled a mission, Resource Prospector, that would have gone into the permanently shadowed craters near the lunar poles to determine the amount and availability of water ice there. The agency has positioned these new commercial missions as a first step toward doing that kind of prospecting research.

“This is a positive step forward,” Clive Neal, a lunar scientist at Notre Dame, told Ars. However, he said none of these early missions were expected to have the kind of roving technology needed for mobility to map resource-rich areas on the lunar surface. Neal said NASA officials have said the new commercial payloads program will eventually get to the phase where such resource prospecting occurs.

Commercial impact

The commercial companies involved in Thursday’s announcement were understandably excited by the new program. The promise of a guaranteed customer for the missions will likely help some of these companies close their business cases and raise additional funding.

“This is on the critical path for any commercial company wanting to provide commercial lunar services,” Bob Richards, the founder of Moon Express, told Ars. “The threshold of capitalization needed and the nascent market of commercial lunar customers is otherwise out of reach of most companies, certainly most startups. So NASA is providing a critical priming of the pump to get things going.”

This is an important moment for some of these companies. Although there was a strong field of entrants into the Google Lunar XPRIZE, no one succeeded in winning that competition to complete a soft landing on the Moon. Now, the prize is a NASA contract. And it is nearly time for the commercial lunar companies to deliver.

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