About a year ago, NASA announced that they had selected nine different companies that were eligible to compete for contracts to deliver relatively small science and freight missions to the lunar surface.
What seemed noticeable about this was that many of the selected companies had not done much (if any) business with NASA in the past. (Lockheed Martin was an exception.) NASA has since begun awarding a couple of contracts for actual deliveries, but it obviously wants more bidders. So on Monday, the agency added five new companies to the pool of eligible entrepreneurs in its commercial Lunar Payload Services program, or CLPS.
"Expanding the group of companies that are eligible to bid to send payloads to the lunar surface is driving innovation and reducing NASA and US taxpayer costs," the agency's administrator, Jim Bridenstine, said in a news release.
This group contained several surprises, such as little-known, California-based Ceres Robotics, which develops small rovers that can explore the lunar surface and count Buzz Aldrin's son Andy among its advisors.
Prominent new space companies Blue Origin and SpaceX were also among the selected. Blue Origin was no surprise, as it offered its New Glenn rocket and Blue Moon lander, which can deliver more than 3 tons to the lunar surface.
SpaceX offered NASA the use of its Starship spacecraft and Super Heavy rocket. This is a little exaggerated for what NASA is looking for with its modest CLPS program, since theoretically Starship could one day deliver as much as 100 tons to the lunar surface. But SpaceX offers some validation that if it fully develops the ambitious Starship vehicle, NASA will be a willing customer in the future. This, in turn, can help SpaceX obtain development funds from investors.
"This is a super cool program," SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said of CLPS in a conversation with reporters on Monday. "It's a way for us to deliver payload to the lunar surface for a customer. We are obviously pleased that NASA is a potential customer for us with that vehicle. CLPS is a good part of what we want to do with Spaceships." She added that SpaceX is striving to land Starship on the lunar surface in 2022.
In the coming years, NASA will ask this pool of bidders for suggestions on delivering robbers, power sources and scientific experiments, including the agency's Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, to various locations on the moon. The CLPS contracts have a total maximum value of $ 2.6 billion through November 2028 and will be awarded based on technical feasibility, price and schedule.
By supporting a number of new and established suppliers and pushing the boundaries of commercial space to the moon, NASA seems keen to support innovative US aerospace companies. By joining some unproven companies, NASA's lunar program also seems to be willing to fail occasionally to promote.
"As NASA continues to lean forward and use commercial services to explore the moon, we want as many different ideas as we can on the table," said Steve Clarke, assistant director of research in NASA's Science Mission Directorate, during the media call. "We're really at the bottom of seeing the commercial services that can expand and flourish, with not just NASA as a customer."