NASA Picks Nine Companies for Commercial Lunar Lander Missions

NASA Picks Nine Companies for Commercial Lunar Lander Missions

Today NASA revealed the nine companies it has selected to compete to take NASA payloads to the surface of the Moon.  NASA wants to purchase services rather than develop and launch its own spacecraft as part of the human exploration plan to explore and utilize the Moon.  The companies now are eligible to compete for a combined total of $2.6 billion in task orders over the next 10 years. NASA hopes the first of these small landers will be launched in 2019 or 2020 and continue on a two-per-year basis.

The nine companies chosen for Indefinite Delivery Indefinite Quantity (IDIQ) fixed price contracts under the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program are:

  • Astrobotic Technology, Inc.: Pittsburgh
  • Deep Space Systems: Littleton, Colorado
  • Draper: Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • Firefly Aerospace, Inc.: Cedar Park, Texas
  • Intuitive Machines, LLC: Houston
  • Lockheed Martin Space: Littleton, Colorado
  • Masten Space Systems, Inc.: Mojave, California
  • Moon Express: Cape Canaveral, Florida
  • Orbit Beyond: Edison, New Jersey

Some of the winners are partnered with other companies.  Moon Express, for example, is partnered with Sierra Nevada Corporation, Paragon Space Development Corporation, Odyssey Space Research, and Nanoracks.  The Draper team includes General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems; ispace, inc.; and Spaceflight Industries.

Moon Express and Astrobotic were competitors in the Google Lunar X-Prize (GLXP) program that ended without anyone winning the prize.  They and Masten have been working with NASA since 2014 through the Lunar CATALYST program where they have access to NASA expertise through no-exchange-of-funds Space Act Agreements.

Lockheed Martin, has extensive experience in building robotic landers already, including InSight, which landed on Mars earlier this week, though they are much larger than what is planned for CLPS.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate (SMD), made the announcement at a media event at NASA Headquarters today.  Representatives of each of the companies went up on stage, but few specifics were provided about what the companies are offering or what NASA needs.

Representatives of the nine CLPS winners flanked by Jim Bridenstine, NASA Administrator (far left) and Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate (far right). Credit: NASA

Bridenstine and Zurbuchen met with reporters prior to the event where more information was provided, but the bottom line is that most of the details will emerge only after task orders are issued by SMD for which the companies will compete.  Zurbuchen said NASA will wait to see what the companies offer, what they say they need from NASA, and then make final decisions based on technical feasibility, price and schedule.

The point is that NASA is continuing to embrace commercial space capabilities whenever possible.  Following on the commercial cargo and commercial crew programs for the International Space Station, NASA hopes to be one of many customers purchasing a service for less than it would cost for the government to develop and launch systems on its own. The companies must provide the spacecraft and launch vehicle.  NASA will supply instruments or technology demonstrations to be placed on the spacecraft. These landers, as small as they are, are likely to be carrying payloads for others as well as NASA.

NASA is still deciding what it wants to launch, but Bridenstine stresses that this effort is being driven by science and that is why SMD is leading it, rather than the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD).  SMD issued a call for Lunar Surface Instrument and Technology Payloads on October 18 to solicit ideas for what the science and technology communities would like to send to the lunar surface.  Zurbuchen said in an interview after the media event that he considers these to be in the Mission of Opportunity category of competed SMD activities.

Bridenstine and Zurbuchen emphasize that they do not expect all of these companies to succeed — the success rate may be only 50 percent.  Because these are low cost, they are willing to accept a certain amount of risk for the reward of being able to move fast.  Asked if NASA’s stakeholders at the White House and on Capitol Hill agree with that philosophy, they replied everyone has been fully briefed.  Bridenstine pointed out that he told Vice President Pence at the June 2018 National Space Council meeting that NASA wants to “take shots on goal” to implement Space Policy Directive-1 (SPD-1) and the Space Council embraced the plan.  “What we’re going for here is speed.”

CLPS is part of an overall plan NASA has developed in response to SPD-1, which directs NASA to return humans to the Moon as part of a human exploration program that eventually sends astronauts to Mars.  NASA is starting with these small robotic landers, then medium-size robotic landers, and eventually human-capable landers, in addition to building a human-tended Gateway in lunar orbit.  NASA’s current timeline is for humans to land on the surface in 2028.

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