CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Moon Express, based at Cape Canaveral, is among the nine companies picked by NASA for its new Commercial Lunar Payload Services program that will act as a carrier between Earth and the moon, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced Thursday.
The new $2.6 billion NASA program is focused on conducting scientific experiments on the lunar surface and the goal is to get technology on the moon to begin the research as soon as possible. Bridenstine said the first launch could happen possibly as soon as next year, which would mark the 50th anniversary of the first crewed moon landing.
“NASA will be one customer of many customers in a diverse marketplace between the Earth and the moon,” Bridenstine said.
Moon Express leases Launch Complexes 17 and 18 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and has been developing robotic lunar landers and rovers under the leadership of founder Bob Richards. The company was among the finalists for $20 million Google Lunar XPrize last year that ended without any of the international competitors reaching the moon by the 2017 goal.
Moon Express has developed the MX-1 Scout class explorer, a cylinder-shaped robot with legs, is capable of delivering up to approximately 66 pounds of cargo to the moon. According to the Moon Express website, Scout will be the “lowest-cost planetary spacecraft ever."
The company has a launch contract with California space startup Rocket Lab for up to five launches. Rocket Lab launches its Electron rocket from New Zealand and has a second launch site under construction at NASA's Wallops Island Flight Facility in Virginia.
The other companies are also primarily planetary robotic developers, including Astrobotic Technology, Deep Space Systems, Draper, Intuitive Machines, Lockheed Martin, Masten Space Systems and Orbit Beyond.
Austin, Texas-based Firefly Aerospace, a rocket developer for small to medium payloads, was also picked for the program.
Bridenstine and Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, didn't provide specific science objectives at the announcement from NASA headquarters.
According to NASA's news release, "These early missions will enable important technology demonstrations that will inform the development of future landers and other exploration systems needed for humans to return to the lunar surface, and help prepare the agency to send astronauts to explore Mars."
The nine companies were selected after NASA put out a call in October for potential lunar instruments and technologies to study the moon.
Other companies may be offered the opportunity to join the program, according to NASA, through a contracting process.
The Commercial Lunar Payload Services contracts will span the next 10 years and there is no limit to the number of missions to the moon as long as the combined contract value stays within the $2.6 billion budget, according to the space agency.
Check back for updates this is a developing story.