NASA Selects Six Teams for 1st Round of Lunar Data Program
SAN FRANCISCO — Leaders of six teams selected by NASA to provide detailed data on commercial lunar vehicles and Moon missions say the awards signal a vote of confidence from the U.S. space agency that will help them attract sponsors and investors.
On Oct. 15, NASA chose six firms to participate in the Innovative Lander Demonstration Data (ILDD) program, a five-year, $30.1 million initiative designed to give the space agency access to the technical data produced by commercial firms planning to send robotic vehicles to the Moon. The contracts, which have a minimum value of $10,000 and a maximum value of $10.1 million, were awarded to: Astrobotic Technology Inc. of Pittsburgh; the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory Inc. of Cambridge, Mass.; Dynetics Inc. of Huntsville, Ala.; Earthrise Space Inc. of Orlando, Fla.; Moon Express Inc. of San Francisco; and Team FredNet of Huntsville.
“All six teams had good ideas and proposals,” said Robert Kelso, manager of lunar commercial services at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. “They all presented good solutions for vehicle development, testing, integration, launch and landing.”
The goal of the ILDD program is to use commercial data to reduce risk for future NASA human and robotic exploration missions, Kelso said. Instead of paying for technology, the space agency is paying for the data derived from hardware demonstrations, ground-based testing and lunar operations. “There is value in this data that could be of benefit to NASA,” Kelso said.
Still, Kelso cautioned that in spite of their promise, each team faces technical hurdles and financial challenges in its quest to reach the Moon. By purchasing data, NASA officials hope to help teams overcome some of those challenges, he added.
All six firms selected for ILDD awards also are competing for $30 million in awards as part of the Google Lunar X Prize competition, a race to send the first commercial vehicle to the Moon, travel 500 meters and transmit images and data to Earth. William Pomerantz, senior director for space prizes at the X Prize Foundation of Playa Vista, Calif., said the NASA ILDD contracts are important not only as a near-term source of capital for X Prize teams, but also as a signal that NASA is “a ready and willing customer” of the services and products the teams are developing.
“Given the recent debate over the future of NASA’s exploration mission, potential investors were looking for proof positive that NASA could be a customer of these companies,” Pomerantz said. “Now, the investment community has that proof, and it’s already starting to have the effect of reassuring investors.”
Astrobotic Technology President David Gump added, “The ILDD award is a signal from NASA to the rest of the world that we have the technical and business capability to succeed.”
One of the ILDD contract recipients, Moon Express, is a recent entry in the Lunar X Prize race. Moon Express, a team led by Robert Richards, former founder and chief executive of the Lunar X Prize team Odyssey Moon, first revealed his plans to form a new X Prize team on Oct. 18. Richards declined to offer any details on Moon Express participants or plans.
Another ILDD winner, Earthrise Space, is developing a lunar mission known as the Omega Envoy. Project Director Ruben Nunez, an aerospace engineering student at the University of Central Florida, said the team includes undergraduates, graduate students and professors who serve as advisers. Students at the University of Central Florida are building the Omega Envoy rover, while students at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University are constructing the lunar lander, he added.
Firms awarded ILDD contracts have approximately one month to submit to NASA detailed explanations of their plans, Kelso said. After reviewing that information, NASA officials plan to award contracts to as many as three teams to demonstrate critical components of their landing systems. No date has been set for those awards, said NASA spokesman Michael Braukus.
NASA’s decision to buy data instead of technology is a boon for commercial firms, industry officials said. “The technology development is not funded by NASA so we don’t have to give up ownership of the intellectual property,” said Tim Pickens, chief propulsion engineer and commercial space adviser for Dynetics and leader of Lunar X Prize team Rocket City Space Pioneers.
Being selected to participate in the ILDD program “breathes new life into efforts to find investors,” Pickens said. In addition to offering sponsorship and naming opportunities, the Rocket City Space Pioneers are looking for investors who want to own key elements of the lunar mission’s technology, such as obstacle avoidance software or vision systems. While the team created a business plan that does not require any NASA funding, that funding is always welcome, he added.
Similarly, Seamus Tuohy, Draper’s space systems director, said the Next Giant Leap team is not counting on NASA funding to make its business plan succeed. However, “any additional funds that we gather can be used to reduce risk and improve the business case.”
Draper is developing the guidance, navigation and control systems for two Google Lunar X Prize teams, Next Giant Leap and Rocket City Space Pioneers. Draper’s ILDD contract supports the Next Giant Leap team.
Another winner of the ILDD first round was Team FredNet, a group of more than 700 scientists and engineers developing an open source solution to the problem of sending a vehicle to the Moon.
“Team FredNet members are thrilled to be selected by NASA for the ILDD award,” FredNet Founder Fred Bourgeois wrote in an e-mail. “This is a significant milestone that proves the viability of our collaborative effort.”