NASA Enlists Private Firms To Help Get Americans Back On The Moon

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NASA has awarded $45.5m to a range of US companies in its efforts to get back onto the Moon.

The agency has tapped 11 companies to help develop a spacecraft that will get to the Moon’s south pole by 2024, as part of the highly ambitious Artemis lunar exploration program. The goal is for the first woman on the Moon and the next man to be American astronauts.

“To accelerate our return to the Moon, we are challenging our traditional ways of doing business. We will streamline everything from procurement to partnerships to hardware development and even operations,” said Marshall Smith, director for human lunar exploration programs at NASA Headquarters, in a statement.

In this July 20, 1969 file photo, astronaut Edwin E. Aldrin Jr. walks on the surface of the moon.  (Credit: Neil Armstrong/NASA via AP, File)

“Our team is excited to get back to the Moon quickly as possible, and our public/private partnerships to study human landing systems are an important step in that process.”

Over the next six months, the private space firms chosen will use their millions to study or develop prototypes that will support NASA’s Gateway space station plan. The idea is that Gateway will be an orbiting platform for missions down to the surface. So the agency needs ideas on how the astronauts get off the station and into low lunar orbit, how they descend to and land on the surface and ascend back up again and how to refuel any craft used so they can be reused.

The Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) contracts stipulate that the companies will contribute at least 20% of the total project cost so that the partnerships represent value for money for US taxpayers. NASA is also ensuring that work is expedited by allowing the firms to crack on with their ideas while contract negotiations are ongoing.

“We’re taking major steps to begin development as quickly as possible, including invoking a NextSTEP option that allows our partners to begin work while we’re still negotiating,” said Greg Chavers, human landing system formulation manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

“We’re keen to collect early industry feedback about our human landing system requirements, and the undefinitized contract action will help us do that.”

Each of the 11 companies is looking at different elements, with some taking a few of the conundrums onboard. Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin will study one descent element and one transfer vehicle, while also developing a transfer vehicle prototype. Boeing is working on pretty much everything, with prototypes of two descent ideas, one transfer vehicle and one refuelling element and studies on the lot. SpaceX, in contrast, has only signed up for one descent element study.

The other companies are Aerojet Rocketdyne, Dynetics, Lockheed Martin, Masten Space Systems, Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, OrbitBeyone, Sierra Nevada Corporation and SSL.

The details of which elements each company has signed up for is available here.

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