- The last time NASA landed a spacecraft on the moon was in December 1972.
- The US space agency said it’s about to announce “moon partnerships” with American companies to return to the lunar surface.
- NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine claimed the new moon missions will occur “sooner than you think!”
- NASA is withholding details of the announcement until Thursday afternoon, but Business Insider has independently confirmed some information.
If NASA’s stunning landing of a car-sized robot on Mars didn’t already whet your appetite for space exploration this week, mark your calendar for 2 p.m. EST on Thursday.
That’s when NASA plans to give an update about a program that aims to land privately developed spacecraft on the moon.
“We are announcing new moon partnerships with American companies,” Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s administrator, tweeted on Tuesday. “The US is returning to the surface of the moon, and we’re doing it sooner than you think!”
NASA hasn’t landed anything on the moon since Apollo 17 in December 1972, the final mission of the agency’s crewed-lunar-exploration program. (The agency has, however, crashed probes into the moon to study the composition of its soil.)
But Business Insider has learned that Thursday’s announcement is tied to a more imminent effort to explore the moon and, by extension, support NASA’s larger goals with its gateway.
“Working with US companies is the next step to achieving long-term scientific study and human exploration of the moon and Mars,” NASA said in a press release.
What NASA might announce on Thursday
NASA has provided few details about its announcement but said “future partners” will be named.
Space-industry sources say the event will name nine companies (not 11, as we previously reported), many of them startups, that will be eligible to compete for millions of dollars in future NASA contracts.
Business Insider has independently confirmed that a company called Astrobotic Technology will be one of those nine partners, but an Astrobotic employee said they can’t reveal specifics until Thursday.
Sources also told Business Insider that the announcement will flesh out the future of the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program (CLPS).
In many ways, CLPS resembles NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which uses billions of dollars to coax private companies (like SpaceX and Boeing) into developing new spaceships capable of ferrying astronauts to and from orbit. Similarly, CLPS hopes to encourage smaller companies to develop 1,100- to 2,200-pound robotic landers that can deliver NASA’s scientific payloads to the surface of the moon.
CLPS missions may launch and land as early as 2019 and as late as 2022, according to NASA. The agency may also use the competition to solicit much larger landers designed to take people to and from the lunar surface in the late 2020s.
One of the ultimate goals of the program, along with NASA’s gateway, is to scout for and harvest lunar ice deposits. 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).
Astrobotic formed in 2007 during the Google Lunar X Prize, a $20 million competition that intended to spur private exploration of the moon. The contest shuttered in 2018 without a winner, but Astrobotic continued developing a small lunar lander called Peregrine.
In March, Astrobotic was reportedly working with 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 surface.
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 worth of awards NASA gave out to companies developing “tipping point” technologies for space exploration.
Who else might be involved?
NASA’s list of people scheduled to participate in the Thursday announcement includes Bridenstine, Thomas Zurbuchen (the agency’s associate administrator for science missions), Stan Love (a NASA astronaut), Andrea Mosie (the manager of the Apollo sample laboratory), Barbara Cohen (a Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter scientist), and students involved in the First Robotics Competition.
Sources say these are the nine selected companies or “future partners” in the competition (in alphabetical order):
- Astrobotic Technology (based in Pittsburgh)
- Deep Space Systems (based in Littleton, Colorado)
- Draper (based in Cambridge, Massachusetts)
- Firefly Aerospace, Inc. (based in Cedar Park, Texas)
- Intuitive Machines, LLC (based in Houston)
- Lockheed Martin Space (based in Littleton, Colorado)
- Masten Space Systems, Inc. (based in Mojave, California)
- Moon Express (based in Cape Canaveral, Florida)
- Orbit Beyond (based in Edison, New Jersey)
It’s not yet known how much funding they might be competing for, or under what terms. And ultimately, these companies will not be alone; they will require rocket rides to the moon.
If NASA’s past “tipping point” awards are any indication of future collaboration or involvement, it will also be worth watching Blue Origin, the aerospace company founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos.
Blue Origin took home $13 million in NASA cash in the “tipping point” awards – funding that was earmarked for maturing “critical technologies that enable precision and soft landing on the moon.”
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.
Blue Origin did not immediately respond to Business Insider’s requests for comment, and SpaceX – which could conceivably use its Falcon Heavy rocket to send large payloads to the moon – did not respond in time for publication.
Another company that could be named as a future NASA lunar-mission partner is ULA, which received $13.9 million in the “tipping point” awards. About $10 million of that sum was intended to help ULA develop systems that would enable long-duration moon missions.
Frontier Aerospace Corporation also got $1.9 million from NASA to develop rocket engines to help Astrobotic’s lander.
Watch NASA’s announcement live online
The agency plans to stream its briefing via NASA TV, which anyone can watch on YouTube.
You can tune in using the player embedded below starting at 2 p.m. EST on Thursday.
If you’re having trouble watching the feed above, try NASA TV on the agency’s website.
This story has been updated with new information. It was originally published at 6:36 p.m. EST on November 27, 2018.