SpaceX to launch Masten lunar lander

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WASHINGTON — Masten Space Systems announced Aug. 26 that it signed a contract with SpaceX for the launch of its first lunar lander mission carrying a suite of payloads for NASA.

Masten said SpaceX will launch its Masten Mission One, or MM1, lunar lander mission in late 2022. The companies did not disclose the value of the contract.

In an Aug. 27 interview, Sean Mahoney, chief executive of Masten, said the contract does not cover a specific launch vehicle, but rather a service to get the spacecraft to the moon on the company’s desired schedule. “We’re buying the performance that we need,” he said. SpaceX will have the ability to place other spacecraft on the launch on a noninterference basis.

The mission will carry payloads for NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program under a $75.9 million contract awarded by the agency in April. The XL-1 lander will deliver nine science and technology demonstration payloads to the south polar region of the moon.

The lander has passed a preliminary design review, Mahoney said, and the company is starting to purchase long-lead items needed to build the spacecraft. Masten is also holding biweekly meetings with teams representing the nine CLPS payloads.

NASA will be an anchor customer for the mission but Masten intends to sign up others. “There is a tremendous amount of interest,” he said, including from both the public and private sector, although he didn’t mention any specific potential customers.

Mahoney said the level of customer interest soared after Masten won the CLPS award and had a firm schedule for the mission. “Once the CLPS award was made and we crossed from speculative to having a schedule, the tenor and tone of our conversations have changed dramatically.”

The limiting factor for the lander mission has not been the amount of mass available for payloads, he said, but instead positions on the lander that have views of the surface desired by payloads. “There’s a game of positioning among the various instruments so that they can get the view angles that they need and not interfere,” he said.

However, he said the company isn’t considering major changes in the lander’s design to accommodate payloads. “The design principle is the ‘pickup truck’ that can haul a bunch of different things,” he said. “We’re trying to escape the completely unique, bespoke system that does one job and one mission really well.”

Masten joins a growing list of companies and organizations using SpaceX to launch lunar lander missions. Intuitive Machines, which won one of the first NASA CLPS awards last year, selected SpaceX to launch its IM-1 lunar lander mission on a Falcon 9 in 2021. Intuitive Machines said at the time that it would be part of a rideshare mission, but didn’t state if its lander would be considered the primary payload or not.

Japanese company ispace selected SpaceX in 2018 to launch its first two lunar missions, which at the time were to be an orbiter and lander launching in 2020 and 2021 respectively on Falcon 9 rockets. The company now says both will be lander missions, launching in 2022 and 2023.

SpaceX has already launched one lunar lander mission. Beresheet, the lunar lander built by Israel Aerospace Industries for Israeli organization SpaceIL, flew as a secondary payload on the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch of an Indonesian communications satellite in February 2019. Beresheet used its onboard propulsion to move from a geostationary transfer orbit to lunar orbit, but crashed attempting a landing in April 2019.

Astrobotic, which won a CLPS award last year for its Peregrine lunar lander, selected United Launch Alliance to launch that mission on the first flight of ULA’s Vulcan Centaur rocket in 2021. Astrobotic had previously contracted with ULA to launch Peregrine as a secondary payload on an Atlas 5 before winning the CLPS award.

Astrobotic won a second CLPS award June 11 when NASA selected the company to deliver its Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) mission to the lunar south pole in late 2023. Astrobotic said at the time it would select a launch vehicle for the VIPER mission later this year.