Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is among five companies that have just been cleared to deliver payloads to the moon for NASA. So is Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which is offering its Starship super-rocket for lunar trips.
Sierra Nevada Corp., Ceres Robotics and Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems round out today’s list, joining nine other commercial teams that were put into NASA’s “catalog” for lunar delivery services a year ago. NASA has already picked two of those teams, headed by Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines, to put science experiments on the moon in 2021.
The next delivery orders in what NASA calls the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, or CLPS, are likely to call for payloads to be launched by 2022, said Steve Clarke, deputy associate administrator for exploration in NASA’s science mission directorate. One payload that’s certain to be on the list is NASA’s VIPER rover, which is destined to look for signs of water near the moon’s south pole in late 2022.
SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said Starship should be ready to put as much as 100 metric tons’ worth of payload on the moon’s surface by then. “That capability far exceeds the mass that CLPS was looking for, but we think that brings pretty extraordinary capability to NASA, both for the CLPS program and others,” Shotwell said today during a teleconference with reporters.
The four other newcomers to the CLPS list said their readiness would largely depend on what NASA needed to send by when. Sierra Nevada Corp. is aiming for 2022, and Ceres Robotics is targeting 2023.
In the past, Blue Origin executives their Blue Moon lander could be ready to deliver as much as 6.5 metric tons of payload to the moon by 2023. But Brent Sherwood, Blue Origin’s vice president of advanced development programs, avoided giving a date today. “We’re honored to join this community of 14 diverse providers that are taking us back to the moon, and we are going, so this is really exciting times. … We’re really anxious to get back to the moon to stay,” he said.
Blue Origin is already offering Blue Moon for NASA’s first crewed lunar landing in 2024. SpaceX is also thought to be offering Starship for crewed landings.
Clarke told GeekWire that the 14 companies on the CLPS list would bid for “end-to-end” delivery contracts, which would include launch and landing — and potentially a return to Earth.
“These are not NASA missions,” he said. “When we award a task order to one of the CLPS providers, it is for commercial services. We’re buying a ride for the payloads that we would like for them to take to the lunar surface. These companies will certainly be taking other customers’ payloads as well, and they work those deals with those customers separately, independent of NASA. NASA doesn’t have a say on what other customers may fly on the same lander.
Clarke said the CLPS list was expanded from nine to 14 to take advantage of “the vast diversity we now have” in launch and landing capabilities.
“Our solution set is somewhat broader now,” he said.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine seconded that view in a news release.
“Expanding the group of companies who are eligible to bid on sending payloads to the moon’s surface drives innovation and reduces costs to NASA and American taxpayers,” he said. “We anticipate opportunities to deliver a wide range of science and technology payloads to help make our vision for lunar exploration a reality and advance our goal of sending humans to explore Mars.”
Clarke said the five additions to the list were selected from a field of eight. While Starship and Blue Moon are on the heavy side of the size spectrum, the miniaturized rovers planned by California-based Ceres Robotics and Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems are on the light side.
Sierra Nevada Corp. is planning to field two or three rovers for different applications, based on technologies that are used in its satellites and in its Dream Chaser spaceship.
NASA’s CLPS arrangement is governed by contracts for indefinite delivery and indefinite quantity, also known as IDIQ contracts. The maximum contract value is $2.6 billion over the next nine years. Price won’t be the only factor considered when NASA seeks bids from its newly expanded catalog of vendors. Mission managers will also consider technical feasibility and schedule limitations.