In its ongoing effort to send cargo — and eventually people — to the lunar surface, NASA announced five new partnerships with commercial space companies that have designed robotic landers that can take large payloads to the Moon. The additions include some well-known industry heavyweights, such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Sierra Nevada Corporation, which have already partnered with NASA for other projects.
The newcomers will join an already formed pool of nine companies that are part of NASA’s fledgling CLPS program, which stands for Commercial Lunar Payload Services. The goal is to have multiple different capabilities for transporting scientific instruments and cargo to the Moon, as NASA attempts to send people back to the lunar surface by 2024.
Being chosen to be part of the CLPS program doesn’t guarantee each company a NASA contract to send their spacecraft to the Moon. It simply means that NASA will consider using these companies if and when it wants to send cargo or scientific instruments to the lunar surface. NASA will put out calls for capabilities that the agency wants, and the companies will bid to have the opportunity to ferry NASA’s cargo to the Moon. In May, NASA selected three companies from its original pool of participants — Astrobotic, Intuitive Machines, and Orbit Beyond — to send robotic landers to the Moon in the early 2020s, with each spacecraft carrying a variety of payloads. Only two of those companies are continuing toward that goal now, as Orbit Beyond said it would not be able to meet its late 2020 deadline.
The companies being added today — SpaceX, Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada Corporation, Ceres Robotics, Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems Inc. — all vow to transport much heavier payloads than what the original nine CLPS companies say they can carry. The original nine companies needed to be able to carry up to 22 pounds (10 kilograms) to the lunar surface, but some of these new providers claim they will eventually be able to carry several tons to the Moon. “We have a need and saw a need to bring on some additional providers that had enhanced lander capabilities,” Steve Clarke, deputy associate administrator for exploration in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said during a press conference announcing the new CLPS participants. “This is based on our objectives — the agency’s objectives — to get to the moon as soon as possible, both from a scientific standpoint and from a human exploration standpoint.”
Thanks to a challenge from Vice President Mike Pence, NASA is scrambling to send humans back to the Moon within the next four years. As the agency prepares to meet that challenge, NASA wants to send tech to the Moon to study the lunar environment more in-depth, as well as demonstrate technologies that might be used for future human missions. Additionally, NASA wants to send a new rover to the Moon called VIPER, which will travel to the lunar south pole and scout for potential water ice that might be lurking there. Engineers are interested in using this water ice as a resource for future human missions.