Five More Companies Added to NASA’s CLPS Pool

Five More Companies Added to NASA’s CLPS Pool

NASA announced five additional companies for its pool of providers for the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program today.  Among them is SpaceX whose President and COO, Gwynne Shotwell, says it hopes to land a cargo version of Starship on the lunar surface in 2022.  Much attention is focused on when Starship will send astronauts to the Moon or Mars, but Shotwell made clear today they want to get a lot of experience with the cargo version first.

NASA initiated the CLPS program last year.  It is procuring services, not spacecraft or rockets, to place NASA payloads on the Moon. Each company must provide the launch and a lander and/or rover onto which NASA can put one or more scientific or technological experiments.  NASA hopes it will be just one of many customers on these flights.

The CLPS contracts are Indefinite Delivery-Indefinite Quantity (IDIQ) with a total maximum value of $2.6 billion through November 2028.  Selection into the pool of providers is just the first step.  When NASA needs to send something to the Moon, it issues task orders with specific requirements.  Companies in the pool choose whether or not to bid.  NASA officials say they recognize not all will succeed. They describe CLPS as taking “shots on goal” and a 50 percent success rate is acceptable.

Nine companies were selected last year. Five more were added today.

  • Blue Origin, Kent, WA
  • Ceres Robotics. Palo Alto, CA
  • Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), Louisville, CO
  • SpaceX, Hawthorne, CA
  • Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems, Inc, Irvine, CA
Illustration of NASA’s VIPER robotic lunar lander that search for and map water ice on the Moon’s south pole. Credit: NASA

The original nine focused on small landers, but NASA now wants access to larger landers that can handle missions like VIPER, a rover that will that quantify and sample water ice.  NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine revealed plans for VIPER at the International Astronautical Congress in October.

The first task order contracts for small landers were awarded to three companies on May 31, although one (OrbitBeyond, Inc.) quickly withdrew.  The other two, Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines, are planning to launch their spacecraft in 2021.

Steve Clarke, who heads the CLPS program at NASA Headquarters, said today that a new round will be offered soon for landings in 2022. The plan is to launch two CLPS missions per year, so there is a great deal of opportunity both for the service providers and experimenters.  NASA has already selected 12 instruments for delivery to the Moon via CLPS in that time frame and VIPER is also on the docket for 2022.

Of the five companies announced today, SpaceX and SNC both said they expect to be ready by then.  Ceres Robotics said it is targeting 2023.  Blue Origin and Tyvak declined to give a year, saying they will fly when they are ready.

Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos next to a mockup of the Blue Moon lander. Credit: Blue Origin

Blue Origin is already working on its Blue Moon lander, however, and submitted a bid to NASA on November 5 to use it as part of the Artemis human lunar landing program to put astronauts on the Moon in 2024.  It is leading a team that includes Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper Labs to build a landing system where Blue Moon would be the descent vehicle.  The company has not said what launch vehicle Blue Moon will use, though, saying only that it is designed to take advantage of the company’s New Glenn rocket that is in the early stages of development.

SpaceX’s Starship is designed for crewed flights so will have the capability not only to land on a surface, but return back to Earth.  Shotwell said today that the initial plan is to drop cargo on the Moon and “hopefully return” in 2022.  It will use the company’s Super Heavy rocket that also is in development.

Starship prototype at SpaceX’s Boca Chica, TX launch site, September 2019. Credit: Elon Musk tweet.

That is just the cargo version of the spacecraft, however.  No one will be aboard.  Shotwell said they want to get “a lot” of experience with the cargo version, putting satellites into orbit and science experiments on the lunar surface, before trying to land anyone on the Moon.  SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk signed a contract with Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa to go around the Moon in 2023, but that does not involve landing there, only back on Earth.  Musk said in September that a crewed mission to Earth orbit on Starship could happen next year.

The other companies provided few details about their proposals.  SNC is building the Dream Chaser spacecraft that looks like a small space shuttle for trips to Earth orbit.  John Roth said Dream Chaser itself would not be used for lunar missions, but some of the technologies are applicable.  He said the company has two other spacecraft that also could be used for CLPS, but was not specific.

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