NASA selects nine companies that will vie to put small landers on the Moon

Today, NASA announced that it is partnering with nine US aerospace companies to send small robotic landers to the Moon — the first phase in a multi-year plan to put humans on the lunar surface again. The companies are now part of a pool that can compete for NASA money. Whenever NASA wants to put small payloads of scientific instruments on the lunar surface, the agency will choose from these companies to do so.

The winning companies include Lockheed Martin, Astrobotic, Moon Express, Masten Space Systems, Deep Space Systems, Draper, Firefly Aerospace, Intuitive Machines, and Orbit Beyond. Many of these companies are small fledgling aerospace companies that have yet to put anything in space. And there are a few notable companies absent from the pool, including SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin — both of which showed interest in the program.

These Moon partnerships are part of the newly minted NASA CLPS program — which stands for Commercial Lunar Payload Services. NASA put out a notice in April for companies interested in participating in the program, with the submission period ending in October. The initiative aims to send small robotic spacecraft, made by private companies, to the surface of the Moon as early as 2019. Such landers will need to carry at least 22 pounds (or 10 kilograms) of scientific instruments, in order to gather more data about the Moon’s surface.

NASA wants to learn more about what kind of resources are on the Moon, such as the theorized water ice on the surface that could be used as rocket fuel and for other applications on future human missions. But there’s quite a bit of science that NASA still hopes to do on the Moon, too. Studying the Moon’s composition can tell us more about the formation of the Solar System, and the far side of the Moon provides a unique vantage point for studying the Universe, according to Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate. In fact, the CLPS program will be overseen by the Science Mission Directorate instead of Human Exploration — even though the initiative is a precursor to human missions.

“My experience has been from the beginning that human exploration and robotic exploration can work hand in hand and enable opportunity that otherwise cannot be imagined,” Zurbuchen said during a press conference before today’s announcement of the partnerships.

But ultimately, the CLPS program is meant to serve as the initial step in NASA’s long-term goal of creating a sustainable presence on the Moon. It all stems from Space Policy Directive 1, a directive that President Trump signed in December 2017 instructing NASA to send humans to the lunar surface again. Since then, NASA has come up with a complicated strategy for doing that, one that entails creating a new space station as well as partnering with industry and international agencies to create new lander technologies.

Over the next decade, NASA hopes to build a station in orbit around the Moon called the Gateway, which will serve as an outpost for astronauts and spacecraft traveling to and from the lunar surface. At the same time, NASA plans to partner with private companies to create a series of lunar landers, eventually culminating in ones that can carry humans to the Moon’s surface. The goal is that the small robotic landers created through the CLPS program will help to inform the technologies needed for bigger robotic landers and ones that can carry crew.

A rendering of Astrobotic’s Peregrine Lander. Astrobotic is one of the nine companies NASA is partnering with for CLPS
Image: Astrobotic

NASA did not provide many details about why it selected the companies it did. But now that these companies are “finalists” for the program, they will continue to develop their lander capabilities so that they can compete to send payloads to the Moon for NASA. As of now, the companies will be vying for contracts that, when combined, will equal $2.6 billion over the next 10 years. “We’re going to buy the service and that enables us to be one customer of many customers spreading the cost,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said at the press conference. “It also enables us to have multiple providers competing on cost and innovation so we can have more access than we could otherwise have if we did it on our own.” However, there are no set terms for how many deliveries NASA will buy and how much each mission will be worth.

The nine companies will be responsible for finding their own rocket rides to space, if and when NASA selects them to take a payload to the Moon. It’s possible that NASA may help in the development of these landers by providing extra money to the companies, though it’s not a done deal as of yet, according to Zurbuchen.

Some of the companies have actually joined with other organizations and formed teams to provide rides to the lunar surface. For example, Draper previously announced a partnership with Japanese startup ispace, General Atomics, and Spaceflight Industries — all of whom will work together to create lander capabilities for NASA. Additionally, Moon Express announced today that it will also be teaming up with Sierra Nevada Corporation, NanoRacks, Paragon Space Development Corporation, and Odyssey Space Research to make its lunar landers.

However, NASA doesn’t expect all nine of these partners to succeed in making viable spacecraft that can touch down gently on the Moon. “We want them to be successful,” Bridenstine said. “It’s not a guarantee that they will be, because what they’re doing is unlike anything we’ve done before.” But he noted that even a failed landing on the Moon will be important. “Our goal is to learn as much as we can possibly learn and help this fledgling industry develop here in the United States,” he added.

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