NASA lunar rover
NASA now expects to make an award in the Lunar Terrain Vehicle services contract at the end o March 2024, four months later than previously planned. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — NASA has delayed the award of contracts to develop a lunar rover for future Artemis missions by four months, raising concerns in industry about the future of the program.

NASA had intended to make an award for the Lunar Terrain Vehicle (LTV) services contract in November. In a final request for proposals issued May 26, NASA said it expected to make one or more awards on Nov. 27. At the time it issued the request for proposals, those proposals were due July 13, a date later shifted to July 26.

However, in recent weeks NASA changed the expected contract award to March 31, 2024. That change, made on a procurement website, did not disclose the reason for the four-month delay.

A NASA spokesperson said Oct. 30 that that the agency delayed the award “to allow additional time to evaluate proposals” but did not elaborate.

Industry officials, speaking on background because of the ongoing procurement, speculated that the delay may be linked to uncertainty about NASA’s budget in fiscal year 2024. A delay to the end of March, they said, could give NASA more time to determine how much money they will have available for the LTV effort in the coming year, including whether they will be able to fund more than one award.

Several companies have stated their plans to compete for the LTV contract, including startups like Astrolab and Intuitive Machines as well as established companies like Leidos, Lockheed Martin and Teledyne Brown. That has led to unique partnerships, like Lockheed working with automaker General Motors and Leidos partnering with NASCAR, the auto racing company. NASA expects to start using the rovers with the Artemis 5 mission at the end of the decade.

As with some other elements of Artemis, NASA plans to procure the LTV lunar rover as a service, with companies owning the rovers and able to use them for other applications when not needed for Artemis missions. In other services contracts, NASA has selected at least two providers, but for LTV NASA said only that it would select one or more providers.

NASA and some companies have argued that a services approach saves the agency money while freeing up companies to try innovative approaches and seek non-NASA customers. That support, though, is not universal.

Speaking at the American Astronautical Society’s von Braun Space Exploration Symposium Oct. 27, former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin discussed the “regrettable square-wave flip from it’s all government all the time in space to if it isn’t commercial, why are we bothering to do it?”

Griffin did not specifically mention LTV or other programs that have taken the services approach, but he argued that the shift to commercial approaches deprived government agencies of doing “a certain amount of work themselves,” in the process building up experience they can then apply to other programs.

He also said companies advocating for commercial approaches are doing so because they want government money without the rules and regulations involved in traditional government contracting approaches. “Until we can return to the proper definition of commercial we’re going to be kidding ourselves.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...