Lockheed Martin McCandless Lunar Lander
Lockheed Martin said it will offer the McCandless Lunar Lander, based on its designs for Mars landers, under its Commercial Lunar Payload Services award announced by NASA Nov. 29. Credit: Lockheed Martin

WASHINGTON — NASA has picked nine companies, ranging from startups to aerospace giants, to be eligible for future contracts to deliver payloads to the surface of the moon, but with no guarantee of business for any of them.

NASA announced Nov. 29 the selections as part of its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, where the agency will buy space on future commercial lunar landers to carry science instruments and other payloads. The winning companies are:

  • Astrobotic Technology, Inc.: Pittsburgh
  • Deep Space Systems: Littleton, Colorado
  • Draper: Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • Firefly Aerospace, Inc.: Cedar Park, Texas
  • Intuitive Machines, LLC: Houston
  • Lockheed Martin Space: Littleton, Colorado
  • Masten Space Systems, Inc.: Mojave, California
  • Moon Express: Cape Canaveral, Florida
  • Orbit Beyond: Edison, New Jersey

The companies selected range from a major aerospace corporation, Lockheed Martin, to little-known startups, and from companies that were longtime competitors in the now-expired Google Lunar X Prize for commercial lunar landers to those that had not previously publicly expressed plans for such landers.

“When we go to the moon, we want to be one customer of many customers in a robust marketplace between the Earth and the moon,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said during an event at NASA Headquarters to announce the selections. “We want multiple providers that are competing on cost and innovation.”

In the press release announcing the winning companies, NASA said the companies are eligible for up to $2.6 billion in awards over the next ten years. The agency didn’t disclose the maximum contract amounts for each company. The awards are all indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity contracts, and it’s not unusual for the actual value of such awards to be far less than the maximum value.

For now, each company will receive a small, unspecified amount of funding to develop a payload users’ guide. NASA will later compete individual task orders among the companies to fly specific payloads to the moon.

“They are becoming part of the catalog, so to say,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science. “They will compete for tasks that we’re going to put out there weeks and months from now.” The first missions under CLPS could take place in 2019, NASA said in its announcement, although many industry sources expect 2020 to be a more reasonable date for a first mission under the program.

NASA is in the process of identifying payloads that could fly on those spacecraft. Zurbuchen said the agency has a “set of instruments” that are either ready for flight now or could be ready in the near future, such as a retroreflector to enable accurate laser ranging of the Earth-moon distance. NASA also issued in October a call for instruments and other technologies that can be flown on commercial landers.

Masten XL-1
Masten Space Systems is developing the XL-1 lander for CLPS. Credit: Masten Space Systems

NASA is providing no development money for any of the CLPS companies, who will have to raise the funding needed for their landers from other sources. Both Bridenstine and Zurbuchen acknowledged that some of the winners might not be able to deliver on their landers, while new companies may emerge that could be eligible to join the program through future “on-ramps.”

“Think of it like venture capital. Our investment is low because we have other people who are investing,” said Bridenstine. “But we have more providers. In other words, the portfolio is larger, so we can take risk.”

The companies themselves made only a cameo appearance at the event, briefly appearing on stage but making no remarks. Afterwards some of the companies discussed details about their planned lander systems.

Lockheed Martin, by far the largest company selected for CLPS, said it will develop what it called the McCandless Lunar Lander, named after the late astronaut Bruce McCandless. The lander is based on designs for Martian landers the company produced for NASA, including the InSight lander that touched down on Mars Nov. 26.

“Lockheed’s lander is a little bit larger than some of the others,” said Joe Landon, vice president of advanced program development at Lockheed Martin’s commercial civil space unit. He said the lander will be able to deliver payloads of up to 100 kilograms.

Near the other end of the corporate spectrum is Orbit Beyond, a small company with plans to develop a series of lunar landers. It is teamed on its CLPS award with several other companies, including Team Indus, one of the finalists in the Google Lunar X Prize. Team Indus, based in Bangalore, India, is not eligible itself for a CLPS award because of NASA requirements that companies be based in the United States, with development work done domestically.

Jeff Patton, chief engineering advisor for Orbit Beyond, said the company will transfer the technology for Team Indus’ lander so that versions of it can be built in the U.S., with the company looking at potential facilities in the Cape Canaveral, Florida, area for integration and testing. “The design is really mature now,” he said.

Masten Space Systems is developing a lunar lander called XL-1 that will be able to place up to 100 kilograms on the lunar surface starting in 2021. Sean Mahoney, chief executive of Masten, called the award a long-awaited milestone for the company, which won part of the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, part of NASA’s Centennial Challenges prize program, nearly a decade ago.

“Going from 2009 and the Lunar Lander Challenge to today, we’ve been working for this thing to exist,” he said of CLPS.

He noted that many of the specifics of how CLPS will work have yet to be determined, but he was optimistic about its prospects. “A lot of this is still developing, but the good news is that it’s moving quickly.”

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...