This op-ed originally appeared in the Dec. 17, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.
In early September, NASA released the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) solicitation, to acquire end-to-end commercial payload services to the lunar surface and announced Nov. 29 the winners of nine indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity contracts entitling them to bid for future delivery jobs. NASA’s quick turn on this procurement demonstrates a seriousness to the potential investors, this is positive for future companies seeking investment for lunar related endeavors.
The winning companies include a mixture of traditional aerospace and new entrants; Lockheed Martin, Astrobotic, Moon Express, Masten Space Systems, Deep Space Systems, Draper, Firefly Aerospace, Intuitive Machines, and Orbit Beyond were all selected.
The goal of CLPS is to provide NASA with annual missions to the lunar surface delivering at least 10 kg of NASA payload before Dec. 31, 2021. The release of Space Policy Directive 1 (SPD-1) in December 2017 directed the U.S. civil space program to pursue a sustainable program of exploration with a near-term emphasis of returning humans to the moon. NASA’s approach to CLPS fits directly in line with SPD-1 and more importantly it is truly commercial in nature whereby it directs the contractor to provide all activities to safely integrate, accommodate, transport, and operate NASA payloads using contractor-provided assets, including launch vehicles, lunar lander spacecraft, lunar surface systems, Earth re-entry vehicles and associated resources.
Unlike some past commercial procurements CLPS is a welcome change to NASA’s procurement approach because NASA is not the only viable customer, it does not restrict a providers’ business model, allows for additional payload sales and other revenue streams not available under a standard government procurement. It is not hard to envision monetizing the branding of a lunar rover and its subsequent forays on the lunar surface. NASA’s approach to CLPS sets the stage for the lunar economy because it will spur investment in CLPS and other commercial provided lunar system capabilities. Several existing as well as new commercial entities will likely be competing to provide routine services to the lunar surface.
Conducting early science on the lunar surface through CLPS satisfies both a government and commercial market need. In-situ resource extraction and utilization of lunar polar ice deposits is a necessary technology that will encourage an oxygen-based economy, which is the keystone to a lunar economy. NASA’s investment in an efficient and affordable lunar related commercial infrastructure is encouraging for the long-term sustainability of the lunar economy.
CLPS can also provide the ability to test larger lunar subsystems’ suitability, which has long-term risk reduction and cost savings implications both which are needed for a sustainable lunar economy. Human space exploration is expensive and to be more affordable all cost reductions must be explored. CLPS provides a proving ground for investment in the market for larger landers and other human-related systems. If CLPS is a commercial success one can envision a commercial market to provide large-scale systems such as those involved in human lunar exploration.
NASA with this early step through CLPS has set the stage for what could be a more cost effective, faster and broad reaching approach to realizing our return to the moon.
Mike Bowker is a former aerospace executive and is the vice president of Faulconer Consulting Group LLC of Denver.