NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine hosted a press conference today to reveal the next phase of the agency’s lunar ambitions. The Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) has its first official partners. The nine companies announced at the event will begin developing technology to support the upcoming Gateway lunar station and land small payloads on the moon itself. You’ve probably heard of some of these companies, but others are new players in space exploration.
The CLPS program is starting with relatively modest payloads topping out at 10 kg (22 pounds). Even sending something small to the moon is no simple feat as the expiration of the Lunar X Prize demonstrated. Still, the focus on smaller payloads has opened the door to startups in CLPS as well as established aerospace firms.
It’s no surprise that Lockheed Martin Space is among the nine CLPS companies. It’s one of the largest NASA contractors and is currently working on the Orion crew module. Deep Space Systems, which has worked on Orion, Juno, and other NASA missions is also in the mix. Draper is another long-time space contractor in the CLPS program. It’s working with several partners including Japan’s Ispace.
Both Astrobotic Technology and Moon Express are on the list as well. You might recognize these companies from the Lunar X Prize. Participating in CLPS is a natural move for them even if they didn’t manage to win the Google-sponsored competition. Meanwhile, a startup called Orbit Beyond is in the running for NASA’s moon payloads, and it’s working with TeamIndus, the Indian spaceflight company that almost won the Lunar X Prize competition. As for the other startups and smaller players, NASA has Firefly Aerospace, Intuitive Machines, and Masten Space Systems.
JUST ANNOUNCED: Our partners who will help us explore the Moon include @Astrobotic, @DeepSpaceTweets, @Firefly_Space, @Int_Machines, @LockheedMartin, @MastenSpace, @MoonEx, @DraperLab and Orbit Beyond. Watch: https://t.co/MHnB7ULfRm Ask ?s using #askNASA pic.twitter.com/htpezfIocG
— NASA (@NASA) November 29, 2018
The Commercial Lunar Payload Services contracts have a total value of $ 2.6 billion over the next 10 years. NASA believes the first missions could head for the moon as soon as next year, and it already has some payloads in mind. The first few launches will probably be technology demonstrations, but NASA hopes to study radiation exposure on the moon as well as the potential for in-situ resource extraction.
NASA has previously suggested that it could start constructing the Gateway lunar station as soon as 2023. That will depend on the success of the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program. Maintaining a permanent human presence in lunar orbit will require a lot of support services that NASA can’t handle on its own.