Recently, NASA announced the first round of three commercial missions to the moon under the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program that is part of the Artemis return to the moon program.
The three commercial companies are, according to the space agency:
“Astrobotic of Pittsburgh has been awarded $79.5 million and has proposed to fly as many as 14 payloads to Lacus Mortis, a large crater on the near side of the Moon, by July 2021.
“Intuitive Machines of Houston has been awarded $77 million. The company has proposed to fly as many as five payloads to Oceanus Procellarum, a scientifically intriguing dark spot on the Moon, by July 2021.
“Orbit Beyond of Edison, New Jersey, has been awarded $97 million and has proposed to fly as many as four payloads to Mare Imbrium, a lava plain in one of the Moon’s craters, by September 2020.”
The CLPS program represents a new approach that NASA is pursuing for lunar exploration. During the Apollo program, even un-crewed missions to the moon such as the Ranger and Surveyor were developed directly by NASA with the help of heavily supervised contractors.
The space agency is now taking a more commercial-centric approach. The three companies have developed their own landers and NASA is buying lunar transportation services. The winners of the first round of CLPS will take NASA instruments as well as any other payloads that they can acquire from other customers to the lunar surface.
“Each partner is providing end-to-end commercial payload delivery services to NASA, including payload integration and operations, launch from Earth and landing on the surface of the Moon. These early missions will enable important technology demonstrations that will inform the development of future landers and other exploration systems needed for humans to return to the lunar surface. They also will help prepare the agency to send astronauts to explore Mars.”
The three landing sites were selected not only for their scientific value but for also having relatively flat terrain, making the task of landing on them easier.
NASA is going commercial for the first American moon landings in over a generation for two reasons:
First, private companies can mount missions to the moon far cheaper than if NASA were to attempt them on its own. For a variety of reasons, mostly having to do with the space agency’s culture as a government organization, everything takes longer and costs more at NASA than in the private sector.
Second, NASA is keen to help jump-start a lunar transportation commercial sector. In the fullness of time, private companies will be able to take cargo, instruments, and even people to the moon. A spirit of competition and innovation will gradually lower the cost of travel to the moon’s surface.
Such a new commercial sector will provide the United States with a competitive advantage over other countries – China comes to mind – which also desire to go back to the moon.
“As additional science, technology demonstration, and human exploration requirements for payloads develop, a request for task order bids will go to all current CLPS contractors. All nine companies initially selected in November 2018 for CLPS will be eligible to bid on subsequent task orders.”
Eventually, NASA intends to go commercial for the first crewed landing on the moon since 1972, now envisioned to take place in 2024.
Companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Lockheed Martin are developing lunar landers capable of taking people to and from the lunar surface.
Going commercial will imply a measure of risk. None of the companies that have been selected in the first round has landed anything on the moon.
While NASA has good hopes that all three planned landings, scheduled to happen in 2020 and 2021, will succeed, the space agency is perfectly prepared to see one or two fail.
The recent crash of the Israeli Beresheet lunar lander is an example of what can happen. Even NASA, during the Apollo missions to the moon, suffered a number of failures.
Still, if NASA and the commercial companies succeed, and if Congress appropriates enough money to keep the Artemis going, the new push “forward to the moon.” As Administrator Jim Bridenstine prefers to call it, will summon a better future than the present.
Humans will no longer be confined to low Earth orbit but will be accessing the knowledge and wealth that the moon has to offer.
And that will only be the beginning.