Masten wins NASA lunar lander award

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WASHINGTON — NASA announced April 8 it has selected Masten Space Systems to fly a suite of payloads to the south pole of the moon in late 2022.

Masten won a task order for NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program valued at $75.9 million. Masten will deliver nine science and technology demonstration payloads to the lunar surface near the south pole by December 2022 on the company’s XL-1 lander.

The CLPS payloads, with a mass of about 80 kilograms, will serve as the initial, anchor customer for that mission, Sean Mahoney, chief executive of Masten, said in an interview. He said there are “hundreds” of kilograms of additional payload space available on the lander, and that the company is working to line up additional customers.

“It runs the gamut,” Mahoney said of other prospective customers. Other, complementary NASA programs may fly payloads on the lander, he said, along with interest from the U.S. Air Force and Space Force. Commercial and philanthropic groups are another set of potential customers.

The XL-1 lander is approaching its preliminary design review. It builds upon the company’s experience developing terrestrial vehicles capable of vertical takeoffs and landings, with more than 600 flights to date. In 2009, the company won the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge competition, part of NASA’s Centennial Challenges prize program, with landers named Xombie and Xoie.

“This experience has helped us develop the enabling technology of entry, descent and landing that will ensure precise and safe landings on other celestial bodies,” David Masten, the founder and chief technology officer of the company, said in a statement.

Masten has made some changes to the design of the lander since it was selected as one of nine companies in November 2018 eligible to compete for CLPS task orders. Mahoney said the company switched from a design with three propellant tanks to one with six. “It allowed us some additional flexibility,” he said of the updated design.

Mahoney said the company will expand its facilities in Mojave, California, and hire some more employees to work on XL-1. “This is still going to be a Masten-style project. This is going to be lean and efficient,” he said. “While it’s a big dollar amount, it’s a big task to accomplish.”

He said the company is looking at options to finance the lander’s development, but that the primary plan is to use revenue from payload sales to NASA and other customers to pay for building and launching it. He noted the company had already done a lot of the technology development needed for the lander from its years of work on terrestrial landers, including those for the NASA challenge more than a decade ago.

“We’ve got the benefit of spending 15 years and multiple tens of millions of dollars already getting things developed,” he said. “To that end, we’ve already made substantial investments.”

Masten is looking at launch options, although Mahoney declined to name any specific vehicles the company is considering. The XL-1 will likely launch as a primary payload on the vehicle the company does select, he said, in order to keep control over the launch schedule.

Mahoney said Masten will continue its other technology development work as it ramps up work on the XL-1 lander. The company, for example, won a NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) award April 7 for an approach to create “instant” landing pads on the moon for future lander missions.

“As we, like the rest of the world, work to keep our employees and families safe in these trying times, we’re glad to see America’s return to the moon and space commerce moving forward,” he said.

Masten is the fourth company to win a CLPS award from NASA. The agency selected Astrobotic, Intuitive Machines and Orbit Beyond for initial awards in May 2019, although Orbit Beyond surrendered its award two months later because of internal business issues. Both Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines are planning to launch their missions in 2021.

The task order Masten won, called Task Order 19C by NASA, was initially released in January and then withdrawn without explanation a week later, to the puzzlement of companies competing for the award. NASA reissued the task order in early February after what the agency said was a review of the requirements, including domestic sourcing, “to ensure that they are complete and in alignment with the Agency’s procurement strategy.”

NASA has since issued another CLPS task order for the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) mission to search for water ice at in the south polar region of the moon. At a March 31 meeting of the National Academies’ Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science, Steve Clarke, deputy associate administrator for exploration in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said proposals for that task order are due to NASA April 10 with a selection expected in mid to late May for a 2023 launch.

The VIPER task order will be followed by Task Order 19D, which will fly another suite of NASA payloads, this time to a region of the moon outside of the poles. That task order will be released in June or July, Clarke said.