NASA awards contracts to three companies to land payloads on the moon

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Updated 4:15 p.m. Eastern.

WASHINGTON — NASA announced May 31 the award of more than $250 million in contracts to three companies to deliver NASA payloads to the lunar surface by 2021.

The agency said it awarded contracts to Astrobotic, Intuitive Machines and OrbitBeyond to carry up to 23 payloads to the moon on three commercial lunar lander missions scheduled for launch between September 2020 and July 2021. The three companies were selected for these task orders from the nine companies that received Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) awards in November 2018.

“Today, NASA becomes a customer of commercial partners who will deliver our science instruments and our lunar technology to the surface of the moon,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a recorded statement during an agency webcast about the announcement.

OrbitBeyond is the first of the three scheduled to fly, with the company currently planning to launch its Z-01 lander on a SpaceX Falcon 9 in Septmber 2020. The New Jersey-based company, which has ties to India’s TeamIndus, a former Google Lunar X Prize team, received $97 million from NASA to fly up to four payloads on a lander scheduled to touch down on Mare Imbrium.

Astrobotic plans to launch its Peregrine lander in June 2021, landing in July. The company had previously announced plans to fly the payload as a secondary payload on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5, but John Thornton, chief executive of Astrobotic, said on the NASA webcast that the company was “assessing our launch options and making a decision very shortly.” The company received $79.5 million for carrying up to 14 payloads to the crater Lacus Mortis.

Intuitive Machines plan to launch its Nova-C lander on a Falcon 9 in July 2021, landing on the moon six and a half days later. The Houston-based company received $77 million to carry up to four payloads on its lander, which will touch down on Oceanus Procellarum or Mare Serenitatis.

Of the nine companies with CLPS awards, eight of them submitted proposals for this task order, Steve Clarke, deputy associate administrator for exploration in NASA’s science mission directorate, said in a call with reporters after the announcement.

“These three companies showed what I would call credible technical plans, well thought out, with schedule and cost commensurate with the plan,” he said. “They identified the risks along the way, which are all commensurate with a very good technical and programmatic plan. That’s why they were selected.”

Executives with the three companies all expressed confidence that their landers would be ready for launch as announced, with flight hardware in some cases being built and tested currently. Both Thornton and Steve Altemus, chief executive of Intuitive Machines, said their initial landers were fully funded.

“We are in the process of closing funding,” said Siba Padhi, chief executive of OrbitBeyond. “That is still being worked out, but otherwise technically we are on schedule to meet the deadlines we have proposed.”

Some details are still being worked out, though. While both Intuitive Machines and OrbitBeyond said they will launch their landers on Falcon 9 rockets, executives later said they’re still finalizing launch contracts with SpaceX for their spacecraft. SpaceX didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about the status of any contracts it has with either company.

NASA hasn’t disclosed what payloads it will fly on each mission, although it selected a dozen payloads from within the agency in February for potential flight on CLPS missions. In a statement, NASA said it will manifest specific payloads on each mission by the end of the summer.

Chris Culbert, CLPS program manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, said the companies identified specific payloads to fly on their landers in their proposals, but that there’s some overlap among the proposals. “Within the next couple of months we’ll have sorted out which payloads will go on which landers,” he said. “We’re also looking at the option of creating some additional payloads to maximize our science return.”

“Those experiments are focused primarily first on volatiles, like water,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, in the NASA webcast. Other areas of interest focus on the geology of the moon and its environment, including those that help prepare for future human missions under the agency’s Artemis program.

“We really want to go land there first, with robots,” he said of the agency’s exploration plans. “We want to go explore where we want to land with our fellow humans and be ready for that.”

NASA has targeted the south pole of the moon for the first lunar landings. None of the companies selected in these CLPS contracts have plans to land on the moon with those initial missions, but future missions could land near the south pole.

“We’ve been discussing when it would be the right time to release a task order to specify the south pole region, and what instruments we would want to take there,” Clarke said. “We’d like to get there as soon as possible.” He said NASA would soon make awards on a second CLPS task order, one that would fund studies on mobility, such as rovers, and “enhanced” landing capabilities that could carry rovers and more advanced payloads.

“We’re looking at creating what I would call a good cadence of missions,” he said, including discussions on when to issue the next task order for payload delivery. That cadence would initially be a couple missions a year, he said, growing to three to four a year by 2023 or 2024.