NASA is hurtling toward a 2024 deadline to put humans on the moon, and to get there on time, it’s divvying out a number of contracts to companies that will set the framework for an astronaut landing.
This week, the winners are Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic, Houston-based Intuitive Machines and New Jersey-based Orbit Beyond, which will be the first lunar lander companies to send their spacecraft to the moon, priming NASA for a return with humans — the first for the U.S. since 1972.
“What we want to do is not to do it the way we did it the first time: alone,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate director for the agency’s science mission directorate. “These three partners we are bringing on board are the type of partnerships that are symptomatic of everything we do [moving forward].”
The three companies are part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Service program, which selected nine companies late last year to compete for up to $2.6 billion worth in NASA contracts to offer lunar payload services over a period of 10 years. Among them was Cape Canaveral-based Moon Express, a start-up hoping to win a contract to offset the challenges it’s faced in recent years, including stalled projects, insufficient funding and mass staff layoffs.
Despite not winning a contract in this round, Moon Express and five others are still in the running for future awards, NASA said.
On Friday, the three winning commercial partners outlined their plans for the moon. Each of them will deliver science and technology payloads for NASA that will help the agency better understand the lunar surface and map out its return with humans, planned for the lunar south pole.
Orbit Beyond is expected to reach the surface first, in September 2020. The company, which has a facility in Daytona, was awarded $97 million to fly as many as four payloads to Mare Imbrium, a lava plain inside one of the moon’s craters. Orbit Beyond will also deliver a small rover to the surface to “learn how to do surface mobility and operations,” said chief science officer Jon Morse.
Intuitive Machines and Astrobotic will both follow in July 2021. Intuitive was awarded $77 million to take as many as five payloads to Oceanus Procellarum, a dark spot on the moon, while Astrobotic got $79.5 million to take up to 14 payloads to a large crater on the near side of the moon called Lacus Mortis.
By the end of the summer, NASA plans to determine exactly which payloads will go on each flight. So far, Intuitive Machines and Orbit Beyond have said they will launch on SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets, while Astrobotic is still selecting its launch vehicle.
“To do this for me is personally a dream come true,” said Intuitive Machines chairman Kam Ghaffarian. “I was 11 years old when I saw for the first time Neil Armstrong step on the surface of the moon and here we are with our company going to the surface of the moon.”
The CLPS announcement is the second in about a week involving NASA’s lunar vision.
The agency was directed by Vice President Mike Pence in March to speed up its human landing on the moon from 2028 to 2024. Since, NASA has been working to increase its funding for the program it’s calling Artemis after the twin sister of Apollo — the namesake for the 1960s lunar program — in Greek mythology. It plans to partner with commercial companies that already have developed technology the space agency could use to make the 2024 deadline.
Last week at the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced that NASA would partner with Colorado-based Maxar Technologiesfor the power and propulsion element on a mini-space station the agency is building to orbit the moon called the Gateway. The Gateway is part of the agency’s long-term plan to have a sustained presence on and around the moon by 2028, but it will also be a critical jumping off point for a trip to the surface planned for 2024.
“Instead of NASA purchasing, owning and operating the systems as we have done traditionally, in many cases, we are going to be able to buy services from commercial companies that have customers that are not NASA. And we welcome that,” Bridenstine said at Florida Tech last week. “Because then we can focus your tax dollars on the things that only NASA can do.”
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