WASHINGTON — NASA is offering government-owned experimental rocket hardware and facilities — but no money — to private entities interested in developing a lander that could send small instrument payloads safely to the surface of the Moon. 

The agency plans to award several unfunded Space Act Agreements for its Lunar Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown (CATALYST) program in April. The nominal performance period for these agreements is three years, Jason Crusan, director of NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems Division, said during a Jan. 27 conference call with reporters. 

Proposals are due March 17. NASA is interested in concepts that could safely land small- and medium-size payloads, which the agency defined as 30-100 kilograms and 250-500 kilograms in mass, respectively. Landers designed for smaller payloads would also be considered, Crusan said. 

Mission proposals must include a U.S. commercial launch vehicle to be considered for an award, according to slides NASA released Jan. 27 for an industry briefing held prior to Crusan’s media call. State and local governments, NASA centers and U.S. national labs are not eligible for a CATALYST award. 

The CATALYST solicitation, which was released Jan. 16, does not specify what sorts of payloads would receive favorable treatment from NASA’s selection official. Crusan said the agency was interested in concepts that enable scientific missions, such as lunar sample return, and engineering demonstrations, such as resource harvesting.

Previous missions to the Moon have revealed the presence of water ice at the poles, which can be refined into breathable oxygen and rocket fuel. The ability to produce oxygen and rocket fuel on the Moon could make it much easier to stage exploration missions to more distant destinations.

Although CATALYST award winners will not get any money, they will get access to NASA civil servants and test facilities, as well as the agency’s Morpheus and Mighty Eagle vertical-takeoff, vertical-landing rockets. These experimental vehicles, similar to craft produced commercially by companies including Masten Space Systems of Mojave, Calif., could be rigged with third-party guidance, navigation and control systems that improve their ability to negotiate dangerous terrain, such as the lunar poles.

Masten already has performed the sort of testbed work for which NASA is trying to tempt industry into using Morpheus and Mighty Eagle. In 2012, the companies wired the Guidance Embedded Navigator Integration Environment system Draper is building for NASA into Masten’s Xombie vehicle and flew the rocket on a simulated lunar descent. 

Crusan billed CATALYST as a follow-on of sorts to the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) flight development program NASA started in 2006. That program paved the way for Orbital Sciences Corp. and SpaceX to start flying cargo to the international space station under a pair of commercial delivery contracts that, combined, are worth nearly $2.5 billion today.

However, the COTS and CATALYST programs differ in fundamental ways. For one, NASA is not bundling any funding with CATALYST. For another, CATALYST is not matched up with any of the priority missions the agency has identified for its human spaceflight and science programs, as was COTS.

Even the presentation Crusan briefed to industry representatives Jan. 28 included the caveat that “NASA does not currently have a requirement for commercially provided lunar lander or lunar cargo transportation services.”

For crewed missions, NASA is focused on the space station and Asteroid Redirect Mission, which was announced in 2013 and calls for prodding a small asteroid into lunar space to be visited by astronaut crews around 2025. NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, meanwhile, is focused on launching the James Webb Space Telescope to an Earth-sun Lagrange point and on robotic exploration of the martian surface.

Although NASA will not be cutting checks for any lunar lander work done under CATALYST, the agency’s move to make equipment and facilities available amounts to a discount for a company like Moon Express, the Mountain View, Calif., startup competing to win the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize by sending a small rover dubbed MX-1 to the Moon in 2015. 

Moon Express is now paying for use of NASA’s Mighty Eagle under one reimbursable Space Act Agreement. Under another such agreement, in effect between 2010 and 2013, the company paid nearly $550,000 to study whether the Common Spacecraft Bus developed at the Ames Research Center for NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer mission that launched Sept. 7 could be adapted for Moon Express’ planned lunar spacecraft.

Until China set its Chang’e 3 lander and Yutu rover down on the lunar surface back in December, there had been a dearth of soft lunar landings dating back to 1976, when the former Soviet Union sent the sample-caching Luna 24 to the Moon. The United States has not had a soft Moon landing since Apollo 17 in 1972.

Follow Dan on Twitter: @Leone_SN


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Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...