MOJAVE, Ca. – Masten Space Systems, once one of the leading vendors in NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services Program (CLPS), is all but gone after a $4.5 million stalking horse agreement, initially submitted by Astrobotic Technology of Pittsburg, was approved on Thursday in bankruptcy court. Astrobotic will also provide Masten with $1.4 million in DIP (debtor-in-possession) financing to keep it running as the company winds down operations.
Astrobotic’s offer outpaced a $2.75 million bid from Intuitive Machines and a $750,000 bid from Impulse Space. Both of those bids were for specific Masten assets, not the whole company.
Masten filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Protection on July 28, 2022 after costs associated with fulfilling its CLPS NASA contract ballooned over budget and the company struggled with supply chain issues during the pandemic. Through CLPS, NASA contracts with private ventures to deliver payloads to the moon.
Masten was one of more than half-a-dozen CLPS companies developing technology for future moon exploration. The others include the aforementioned Astrobotic, Deep Space Systems, Draper, Firefly Aerospace, Intuitive Machines, Lockheed Martin, Moon Express, and Orbit Beyond. As of September 2022, none of the companies had yet to make it back to the lunar surface.
Founded in 2004, Masten Space Systems may not readily have had the ability to get to the moon on its own, but they believed they had the right technology to get from the moon’s orbit to its surface (leaving the long-distance rocket stuff to other companies like SpaceX). In 2009, their Xombie (XA-0. 1B) and Xoie (XA-0. 1E) won in different levels of Northrop Grumman’s Lunar Landing Challenge. Their first lunar vehicle was the XL-1 (also known as the XL1-LANDR) nicknamed Xelene; the name Xelene was adapted from the Greek goddess Selene. Also in the works before both pandemic and the bankruptcy, the XL-2 (longer surface life and bigger payloads) and XEUS (a vertical landing heavy lift carrier under development with ULA).
Masten Space Systems was awarded a contract worth $75.9 million in April of 2020 and at one time was scheduled to make it to the moon by November of 2023. The contract, Task Order 19 (TO 19C) was for landing Xelene and a small lunar rover named MoonRanger in the south pole region of the moon near the Haworth Crater. Xelene featured two payload bays and could haul up to 100kg (about 220 pounds); MoonRanger weighs about 24 pounds (7 pounds when it’s on the moon).
At the time of its bankruptcy, Masten had already paid SpaceX $14 million to get both Xelene and MoonRanger to the lunar surface on Masten Mission 1. On June 30, 2022, SpaceX canceled the launch when Masten failed to make a payment of $4.6 million. The $14 million paid out to SpaceX didn’t just disappear; it’s now listed as a credit and is one of Masten’s most valuable assets.
Along with Astrobotic and Moon Express, Masten, had also been partnered with NASA since 2014 on the Lunar CATALYST program (Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown). Both CLPS and Lunar CATALYST are all part of NASA’s Artemis lunar exploration program.