Houston-based Intuitive Machines was one of nine companies contracted by NASA Thursday to build moon landers as part of a new strategy in which the space agency is more of a customer than a contractor.
“When we go to the moon, we want to be a customer of many customers in a robust market between the earth and the moon,” said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine during a press conference broadcast live from NASA headquarters in Washington, DC. “We want several providers who are competing for costs and innovation.”
With this approach, NASA can focus on advancing human exploration to the moon and then to Mars, which President Donald Trump has sought to expand since taking office in 2017.
The companies selected on Thursday will build the landers, but not necessarily the scientific experiments and instruments that will be sent to the moon. Instead, NASA will introduce them to projects that they can bid on to get there. Some of these projects are carried out by NASA.
Under the 10-year contracts, companies are only paid when they start projects on the lunar surface.
“We’ll have to pay for the launch costs and development, but we’ll make up for it on multiple missions to the moon,” Trent Martin, vice president of aerospace services for intuitive machines, told the Houston Chronicle Thursday. “We calculate customers based on their requirements such as dimensions, performance and data.”
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Thursday’s announcement marks the Trump administration’s final step in pushing the commercialization of space, but it came at a price.
The commercial landers are set to replace a rover that NASA abruptly canceled in April after sinking into it for more than four years and $ 100 million. Known as the Resource Prospector, the rover was built by the space agency to find water on the moon.
Intuitive Machines employees have been working on their lunar lander, known as the Nova-C, since June after securing millions of euros in private funding, Martin said.
“We are extremely excited to develop the Nova-C line for spacecraft and lunar landers, and look forward to landing payloads on the moon,” said Steve Altemus, company president and chief executive, in a statement.
Nova-C is medium in size: weighing 3,300 pounds and about 10 feet tall and seven feet in diameter, the lander can carry a payload of nearly 190 pounds.
Martin wouldn’t disclose how much money Intuitive Machines backed up or who provided it. However, the company will cover both the construction of the lander and launch services until the costs can be offset by moving payloads, he said.
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The lander should be ready to go to the moon by mid-2021, Martin added, and he expects they will launch it with a SpaceX rocket.
“We’re assuming NASA will give all nine companies an order and say, ‘We want to deliver this instrument to the moon in 2021,” he said. “Then companies will bid to deliver the payload … and then they will choose between companies. “
Another Texas company was selected – Firefly Aerospace in Cedar Park. The other companies selected are Astrobotic Technology in Pennsylvania; Deep space systems in Colorado; Draper in Massachusetts; Lockheed Martin Space in Colorado; Masts Space Systems in California; Moon Express in Florida; and Orbit Beyond in New Jersey.
Within 10 years, the nine companies will receive a total of 2.6 billion US dollars for the flight of experiments and instruments to the moon. NASA plans to launch the first payloads as early as 2019, but no later than December 31, 2021.
NASA officials said Thursday they would re-evaluate the companies on the list every couple of years and offer opportunities to other companies.
“Today’s announcement marks tangible progress in America’s return to the lunar surface to stay,” said Bridenstine. “The innovation of American aerospace companies, coupled with our grand goals in science and human exploration, will help us accomplish amazing things on the moon and prepare for Mars.”
Resource Prospector’s resignation earlier this year came as a shock to the scientific community. Many questioned the motives that challenged Trump’s quest to get humans back on the moon for the first time since 1972.
In the search for water on the moon, Resource Prospector would have been very supportive of NASA in their search for space exploration. If there is enough water to be easily collected, the elements can be broken down to produce, for example, rocket fuel or life support for astronauts.
Initially, officials said the time and money invested in the project was not in vain. The instruments – like the ice drill, a system to find hydrogen under the lunar surface, and an instrument to quantify the water extracted from the moon – would fly on future missions like these commercial landers.
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NASA later admitted the parts may not be re-usable, however, and the agency made bids for experiments and instruments to fly on the landers this fall.
On Thursday, Thomas Zurbuchen, assistant administrator of NASA’s directorate of science missions, bypassed the question when asked about the canceled rover, saying the agency already had some experiments in mind for the new landers.
“Some of them are resource-oriented instruments,” he said at a press conference on Thursday. “We continued to support these instruments.”
Resource Prospector should fly in 2022 or 2023. Much of the work on the rover was done at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
The increasing commercialization of space was a central theme for Trump’s administration in his quest to find a return to the moon as a stepping stone to Mars.
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For example, Trump has asked NASA to switch activities on the station to commercial businesses and end federal funding after 2024. The push that followed began in 2014 – before Trump’s presidency – when SpaceX and Boeing become the first commercial companies to send crews to the International Space Station to remove the nation’s dependence on Russia, to move astronauts to and from the orbiting laboratory.
The commercial crew program has faced numerous setbacks and delays, most recently with a NASA investigation into workplace culture at Boeing and SpaceX. And many disapprove of Trump’s plan for the space station, saying companies are unlikely to be willing to take on the station-related tax duties. It wasn’t until the 2017 fiscal year that NASA spent $ 1.45 billion on the space station – not including the cost of transporting and supplying astronauts.
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Even Bridenstine has said it is not feasible to end federal funding for the space station after 2024.
“It sounds really difficult and it is definitely really difficult, but there is definitely interest,” he said earlier. But “that doesn’t mean it can be done, and it doesn’t mean it can be done in seven years.”
Alex Stuckey covers NASA and the environment for the Houston Chronicle. You can reach her at [email protected] or Twitter.com/alexdstuckey.