NASA has begun to make good on its promise to use commercial companies to help with its lunar exploration efforts.
On Friday, the space agency announced that it has contracted with three companies—Orbit Beyond, Astrobotic, and Intuitive Machines—to deliver scientific payloads to the Moon in the years 2020 and 2021. The announcement is significant for several reasons, not least because no private company has ever landed successfully on the Moon and because the United States has not made a soft landing on the Moon in 46 years.
This program, formally named Commercial Lunar Payload Services, represents the vanguard of a decade-long plan for NASA to return to the Moon and potentially establish an outpost for crew on the surface. With this first tentative step, NASA will attempt to better characterize the lunar surface for human activity, and it will begin to study the potential for using resources there.
“The most important goal we have right now is really science, but we do so as part of the agency’s strategy to go to the Moon,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, who heads up the space agency’s science programs. “We want to do it with partners. We want to not only go there, but to grow an industry. That’s the only way we can stay.”
NASA awarded $97 million to a New Jersey-based company, Orbit Beyond, to send its Z-01 lander to a lava plain about 30 degrees north of the lunar equator in September 2020. The spacecraft will launch on a Falcon 9 rocket, presumably as one of several customers on the booster.
Orbit Beyond will fly as many as four different experiments for NASA. The company also hopes to better characterize the plumes generated by a spacecraft as it lands on the dusty surface of the Moon and identify any effect this would have on nearby structures.
“People want to understand how close can you put a habitat to a landing site,” said Jon Morse, chief science officer for Orbit Beyond. “When we do this descent, and we get this imagery, scientists can study the trajectory of those plumes.”
NASA’s other two awards went to companies who, at present, plan to launch in July 2021. Astrobotic, of Pittsburgh, received $79.5 million to fly as many as 14 payloads to Lacus Mortis, a large crater on the near side of the Moon. It will launch on either a Falcon 9 or Atlas V rocket. Intuitive Machines, of Houston, received $77 million to fly as many as five payloads to Oceanus Procellarum, a scientifically intriguing dark spot on the Moon. It will launch on a Falcon 9 rocket.
These awards represent the first lunar science payload “task orders” issued by NASA, for which nine previously selected companies are eligible to bid. The space agency said eight of the nine companies named in November chose to bid for these missions. As additional science, technology demonstration, and human exploration requirements for payloads develop, NASA said it will issue additional task orders.
Shots on goal
One of the most intriguing aspects of these contract awards is whether the private companies will succeed in making soft landings on the Moon. As the private, Israeli-built Beresheet lander demonstrated earlier this year when the spacecraft crashed into the Moon, it is really hard to get everything right the first time. Officials with each of the three companies said Friday during a teleconference with reporters that they were seeking to balance redundancy in their systems with cost and mass constraints.
NASA previously has characterized these missions as “shots on goal,” implying that while some of them will succeed, others will fail, and that the agency was ready to accept this given the low-cost, experimental nature of the program. However, on Friday, NASA Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Steve Clark said, “My confidence is high that these three companies will succeed.”
We should begin to find out how well placed that confidence is during the next 12 to 15 months.