WASHINGTON – NASA announced on November 18 that it added five companies to the contract to deliver commercial cargo to the surface of the moon, a group that ranged from small businesses to Blue Origin and SpaceX.
NASA said five companies – Blue Origin, Ceres Robotics, Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), SpaceX and Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems – had been selected to join nine companies with a Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) contract. All 14 companies are now eligible to bid for future assignments for the delivery of cargo to the lunar surface.
This "on-ramp" to CLPS is specifically designed to attract companies with the ability to carry heavier loads to the surface of the moon. This includes the NASA Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) mission, NASA explorers plan to fly in 2022 to look for evidence of water ice at the moon's south pole.
"We actually wanted to do this a little later, but we saw the need to speed things up," Steve Clarke, associate deputy administrator for exploration at NASA's science mission directorate, said in a teleconference conference with reporters. Larger landers, he said, could provide the tools needed by astronauts ahead of their landing mission, in addition to providing scientific content.
The biggest lander, so far, of newcomers is from SpaceX, which is bidding on launch vehicles that can be reused by Starship. Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, said that Starhip will be able to send up to 100 metric tons of cargo to the lunar surface and return an undetermined amount back to Earth.
"We think this is a very neat program. This reminds us a little of the COTS program, "Shotwell said, referring to the efforts of NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Service to fund the development of SpaceX's commercial cargo capabilities.
Shotwell said the moon landing mission by Starship could begin in 2022. Such a mission would only be a cargo, but he said it could serve as a "good stepping stone" for the crew's later mission. He did not give a date for the crew's mission, but said SpaceX would fly the Starship "a lot" before flying any mission with the people in it.
Blue Origin will offer NASA the Blue Moon landing that the company launched in May, which is capable of carrying several tons of cargo to the lunar surface. "It has a lot of payload capacity, the power to pass the night of the moon, a very large open cargo deck," said Brent Sherwood, vice president of advanced development programs at Blue Origin. He then refused to state when the lander would be ready for the CLPS mission, saying it would depend on the specifications of each individual CLPS task order.
NASA also added smaller landers to the CLPS contract. "Our company is in a good position not only to bid smaller payloads to the Moon because we are building our own satellite system," said John Roth, vice president of business development at SNC. Roth said the company could take on a larger load lever technology developed for its Dream Chaser vehicles, but he did not reveal how much payload the company could carry. The SNC will be able to start a lunar landing mission in 2022, he said.
Michael Sims, chief executive of Ceres Robotics, said his company's CLPS award is a sign of small companies like him having a role in NASA's broader plans. "Space exploration and, in particular, humans who become multi-financial need the entire corporate ecosystem," he said. "Little players become agile and creativity that adds to the mix." He said his company landers must be available for missions starting in 2023.
The Tyvak Nano Satellite System is known as a small producer. Marco Villa, the company's chief operating officer, said Tyvak would utilize the experience in landing on the moon. "We will start with something smaller," he said. "Our flexibility and ability to improve will lead us to fulfill increasingly complex missions in the near future." He declined to say when his company's landers would be ready.
The five companies, selected from eight who submitted proposals to this road, joined nine original CLPS companies chosen by NASA almost a year ago: Astrobotic, Internal Space Systems, Draper, Firefly Aerospace, Intuitive Engine, Lockheed Martin, Masten Space Systems, Moon Express and OrbitBeyond. In May, NASA gave Astrobotic, Intuitive Machines, and OrbitBeyond assignments for the lunar landing mission, but OrbitBeyond canceled its order two months later, citing internal business problems.
Clarke said NASA was developing a new task order company that had to be released "in the near future" for the CLPS company to bid on, as well as one for the VIPER plow. The agency is separately working on requests for proposals for science instruments to fly on the mission, with the aim of carrying out two "delivery" of charges to the surface of the moon each year.