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NASA offers $2.6 billion to coax 9 companies to land on the moon



commercial private moon lander lunar surface earth illustration lockheed martin
illustration showing Lockheed Martin’s design for its McCandless
Lunar Lander.


  • It’s been nearly half a century since NASA last landed a spacecraft on the lunar
  • On Thursday, the space agency announced it is offering
    up to $2.6 billion in contracts to nine American companies in
    hopes of landing on the moon by 2022.
  • NASA wants the companies to submit bids to fly the
    agency’s experiments aboard commercial moon landers.
  • The administrator of NASA hopes the program will help
    forge a “robust marketplace” for faster, lower-cost commercial exploration of
    the moon and eventually Mars.

The last time a NASA spacecraft safely landed on the moon was in
December 1972. Nearly half a century after Apollo 17, though, the
space agency is itching to return.

NASA announced on Thursday that it’s offering up to $2.6 billion
in contracts to nine American companies to get the agency back to
the lunar surface.

NASA isn’t going to buy the company’s lunar landers outright, nor
will it take responsibility for launching, landing, or
controlling the robots. Instead, NASA wants the private sector to
deal with those challenges and bid on the opportunity to take
NASA’s experiments to the moon.

“We’re doing something that’s never been done before,” Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s
administrator, said during a live broadcast on Thursday. “When we
go to the moon, we want to be one customer of many customers in a
robust marketplace between the Earth and the moon.”

Read more: Astronauts explain why nobody has
visited the moon in more than 45 years — and the reasons are

Bridenstine added that the goal is take advantage of emerging
international demand — both commercial and from other nations’
space agencies — to land on and exploit the moon’s resources.

He views the $2.6 billion in potential contracts (it’s unlikely
all of this money would be spent) as a way to spur companies to
“compete on cost and innovation so that we, as NASA, can do more
than we’ve ever been able to do before.”

A lunar exploration program led by science

ice water map moon lunar north south poles polar deposits shadowed craters max temperature pnas lro nasa 178152
map of “cold traps” inside lunar craters at the moon’s north pole
(left) and south pole (right). Green and teal dots show locations
where water ice may be present at or near the


The effort is a new phase of NASA’s
Commercial Lunar Payload Services program
(CLPS), which aims
to encourage commercial moon missions. Bridenstine said NASA’s
scientific division will decide how the money is spent, not its
human exploration division.

“The moon is full of secrets that we don’t know yet,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s
associate administrator for science, said during today’s

Zurbuchen explained that the agency will create a catalog of
payloads for the companies to bid on taking to the moon. The
first round of proposals are due in January, NASA said in
a release. The first missions
could fly to the moon as soon as 2019, though possibly as late as

deep space lunar gateway boeing
illustration of a Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway concept for NASA
by Boeing.


In addition to enabling science experiments that might refine
what we know about the age of the solar system and universe, CLPS
could also be a stepping stone toward human space exploration.

If successful, the program could pinpoint places to explore with
NASA’s “Lunar
Orbital Platform-Gateway
“: a human space station to be built

in the vicinity of the moon
some time in the 2020s.

“On the moon there is water. On the moon, there are precious
resources,” Zurbuchen said. “We want to learn how to use these
resources because — guess what? — we want to go back with humans
and actually use those resources for us to bring back to Earth or
to fuel, to breathe, to drink.”

Read more:
The moon has ice on its surface in hundreds of places — and it
could be the ‘first step in building a space economy’

Water can be turned into hydrogen and oxygen, which can then be
used as rocket fuel to power ambitious deep-space exploration
(including that of Mars). So later on, NASA may use this
competition to solicit
much larger landers
that could take people to and from the
lunar surface in the late 2020s.

“Ultimately we’re going to take it all the way to Mars from the
moon,” Bridenstine said. “We want to take advantage of the water
ice that we believe is available in the hundreds of billions of
tons on the surface of the moon.”

The 9 companies invited to compete for NASA’s billions

astrobotic technology peregrine robotic moon lander spacecraft
An illustration of
Astrobotic Technology’s Peregrine moon lander.


In alphabetical order, these are the nine companies that NASA
thinks are up to the task of getting its experiments to  the
moon (and maybe back):

NASA said this list may expand, and these companies will not be
alone in their commercial efforts.

Falcon heavy launch spacexThom

Many of the nine companies use subcontractors to build landing
and avionics systems, and all of them will require private rocket
rides to the moon, since
NASA’s Space Launch System
won’t be ready to fly for years.

SpaceX, the aerospace company founded by Elon Musk, has a

new Falcon Heavy rocket
that’s powerful enough to
send a large spacecraft
or multiple small landers to the moon
for perhaps less than $100 million.

There’s also Blue Origin, founded by Jeff Bezos. In October, Blue
Origin said it’s “in the conceptual design phase” of building a
large lunar lander called
“Blue Moon.”
The company is also creating a
reusable rocket system called New Glenn
, which may take
flight in 2020.

new glenn rocket launch flight moon earth illustration blue origin
An illustration of Blue
Origin’s reusable New Glenn rocket launching toward

Blue Origin

The Peregrine lander

One of the nine companies NASA named, Astrobotic, formed in 2007
during the Google Lunar X Prize. That $20 million competition was
intended to spur private exploration of the moon, but the contest

shuttered in 2018 without a winner.
However, Astrobotic
continued developing a small lunar lander called Peregrine.
(Prior to NASA’s announcement, Business Insider
independently confirmed
that Astrobotic would be one of the
commercial partners.)

In March, Astrobotic was
working with aerospace company United Launch
Alliance (ULA) to find room on a rocket that could fly Peregrine
to the moon sometime in 2020. Space News reported in May that
Astrobotic was preparing to bring 12 payloads to the lunar

Then in August, Astrobotic received $10 million from NASA to
create a “low-cost, reliable, high-performance, stand-alone”
system to land a commercial lunar spacecraft on the moon. The
funding was part of $44 million in awards that NASA gave to
companies developing
“tipping point” technologies
for space exploration.

Unlike previous efforts by NASA to get back to the lunar surface
— all of which sputtered out — Bridenstine said the CLPS program
will succeed.

“This is not going to be ‘Lucy and the Football’ again,” he said,
referring to the famous “Peanuts” comic (in which Charlie Brown
never gets to kick a football).

“Everybody is ready to go back to the moon,” Bridenstine added.

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