Texas-based Intuitive Machines, Astrobotic of Pittsburgh, and a group called OrbitBeyond were each selected by NASA to deliver science and research cargo to the moon. The companies could complete their first missions within the next couple of years, executives and NASA officials said Friday.
The cargo will include devices that will help map and navigate the lunar surface, measure radiation levels, conduct scientific investigations, and assess how human activity impacts the moon, NASA said in a press release.
The partnerships are part of the US space agency's Commercial Lunar Payload Services, or CLPS program, which was announced last year and includes up to $2.6 billion worth of contracts.
For this first batch of awards, Astrobotic will get $79.5 million, Intuitive was awarded $77 million, and Orbit Beyond will receive $97 million. Astrobotic and Intuitive plan to launch their first missions in 2021, while Orbit Beyond expects to land on the moon by September 2020.
"Today, NASA becomes a customer of commercial partners who will deliver our science instruments and our lunar technology to the moon," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a video about the announcement. "The landers and instruments they deliver — and the science, technology and research that will be done in the immediate future — will prepare the way for humanity's return to the moon by 2024," he said.
NASA has been publicly pushing its plan to return astronauts to the moon within five years. The program is called Artemis, and it would mark the first crewed deep-space mission in nearly half a century. The program, however, faces political hurdles, and it's not clear where the money will come from.
The space agency wants commercial companies to play a big role in reaching its lunar goals. NASA is separately looking to the private sector for a lunar lander capable of ferrying humans to and from the lunar surface. Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Elon Musk's SpaceX, and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin are among the companies vying for those contracts.
For the CLPS program, however, NASA is focused only on lunar landers that can haul cargo — not people.
Because the landers were privately developed, Astrobotic, Intuitive and OrbitBeyond will still own their technology and be able to sell their services to other commercial companies. NASA will just be another customer.
Right now, there aren't a lot of business opportunities on the moon, said Laura Forczyk, a consultant and founder of research firm Astralytical. So NASA contracts are a key lifeline startups hoping to get into this line of work.
But that could change.
NASA and others want to create a lunar outpost that would require large amounts of infrastructure and the technology to do things like convert the moon's water ice into rocket fuel. There's also valuable resources on the moon that could be mined for a variety of uses. Ultimately, it could become a hub of commercial and government activity.
"NASA's vision for human habitation on the moon will drive the cislunar economy to grow exponentially," OrbitBeyond partner TeamIndus wrote in a recent blog post. "OrbitBeyond estimates it to exceed a $3 billion annual market in 5-7 years."
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