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Lockheed Martin lunar lander
Lockheed Martin is offering its McCandless lunar lander, shown here with an onboard rover in an artist’s conception, for future NASA missions to the moon. (Lockheed Martin Illustration)

NASA says it’s partnering on lunar delivery services with nine commercial teams, headed by companies that run the gamut from the space industry’s heavyweights to startups.

The lineup, announced today by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine at the space agency’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., will take part in a program known as Commercial Lunar Payload Services, or CLPS. The program is aimed at boosting the development of lunar landing services for NASA and commercial payloads, starting with shipments weighing at least 22 pounds (10 kilograms).

Up to $2.6 billion in delivery contracts will be meted out over the next 10 years, NASA said in a news release.

“Welcome to the competition,” Bridenstine said.

Bridenstine said the program would concentrate on science payloads. “We believe there is a lot of amazing science that we can do on the surface of the moon,” he said.

Deliveries could start as early as next year. Eventually, NASA envisions using commercially developed landers for payloads as massive as several tons, which would set the stage for lunar development and settlement.

Because the payload requirements for the first phase of the program are relatively small, CLPS provides opportunities for relative newcomers in the space industry. Several of the teams announced today took part in the Google Lunar X Prize, a competition that ended early this year without anyone winning the top prize.

The nine teams will be led by:

  • Astrobotic Technology, Pittsburgh, a former X Prize competitor that’s developing a lunar lander and rover. Astrobotic’s commercial partners include DHL, Airbus DS, Dynetics and United Launch Alliance.
  • Deep Space Systems, Littleton, Colo., a subcontractor on NASA’s deep-space Orion crew spaceship and other spacecraft.
  • Draper, Cambridge, Mass., a longtime space contractor that is partnering with General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems, Japan’s ispace venture and Seattle-based Spaceflight Industries. Draper is developing a robotic lander called Artemis-7.
  • Firefly Aerospace, Cedar Park, Texas, a satellite launch startup that’s developing a spectrum of rockets.
  • Intuitive Machines, Houston, an engineering consulting firm that has designed a lunar lander called Nova-C. Intuitive Machines has also partnered with Deep Space Systems and Firefly, and it’s been involved in a legal dispute with Moon Express.
  • Lockheed Martin Space, Littleton, one of the biggest companies in aerospace and prime contractor for Orion as well as NASA’s Mars InSight lander. Lockheed Martin is offering its McCandless lunar lander, named after the late NASA astronaut (and Lockheed Martin executive) Bruce McCandless.
  • Masten Space Systems, Mojave, Calif., which has been working on lunar lander technology for more than a decade.
  • Moon Express, Cape Canaveral, Fla., an X Prize competitor that’s partnering with Sierra Nevada Corp., Paragon Space Development Corp., Odyssey Space Research and NanoRacks. Moon Express’ executive chairman is Seattle-area entrepreneur Naveen Jain.
  • Orbit Beyond, Edison, N.J., a startup that’s targeting Earth-to-moon operations in partnership with TeamIndus, an X Prize competitor based in India; as well as with Advanced Space, Honeybee Robotics, Ceres Robotics and Apollo Fusion.

NASA already has some payloads in mind for delivery, including scientific instruments that had been due to fly on the recently canceled Resource Prospector mission. Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, said some payloads would almost certainly focus on issues that are important for future human exploration, such as how to deal with radiation exposure.

Zurbuchen said the services offered by the nine teams would become “part of the catalog” for NASA to choose from when making plans for future lunar missions. “This catalog will change over time,” he said.

In a follow-up exchange on Twitter, NASA said it would look at cost, schedule and technical feasibility when selecting vendors for lunar delivery services.

“We’re essentially buying a ride to the surface of the moon,” NASA told GeekWire. “That means from launch to a safe landing so that we can operate our instruments. We have not provided development funds.”

The list announced today doesn’t include some well-known names in the space industry, such as Blue Origin, Boeing and SpaceX. Those companies could still get in on later phases of the program that would require more payload capability — for example, the multiple-ton landing capability that’d be required for crewed missions to the lunar surface.

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