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NASA Adds Five Companies to Lunar Ship Commercial Program

WASHINGTON – NASA announced on November 18 that it is adding five companies to a contract for the commercial supply of payloads to the moon's surface, from small businesses to Blue Origin and SpaceX.

NASA said five companies – Blue Origin, Ceres Robotics, Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), SpaceX, and Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems – were selected to merge nine companies with commercial lunar load service contracts (CLPS). All 14 companies are now eligible to bid for future orders for the supply of payloads to the lunar surface.

This “on-ramp” for CLPS was specifically designed to attract companies capable of transporting heavier loads to the surface of the moon. This includes NASA's Polar Volatile Substances Research (VIPER) mission, NASA's NASA rover, which plans to fly in 2022 to look for evidence of water ice at the south pole of the moon.

“In fact, we hoped to do this a little later, but we saw the need to speed it up,” said Steve Clark, deputy research assistant at the NASA’s scientific mission, about this at a news conference with reporters. According to him, larger ships can deliver the tools needed by the astronauts before landing, in addition to the delivery of payloads.

The largest of the new entrants at the moment is SpaceX, which has offered a reusable Starship launch vehicle. Gwynn Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, said Starhip will be able to deliver up to 100 metric tons of cargo to the surface of the moon and return an undetermined amount back to Earth.

“We think this is a really good program. It reminds us a bit of the COTS program, ”said Shotwell, referring to NASA’s commercial orbital transport efforts that financed SpaceX’s commercial cargo capabilities.

According to Shotwell, missions of the star ship on the Lunar ship can begin in 2022. Such missions will only be cargo, but, according to her, they can serve as a “good springboard” for subsequent team missions. She did not give a date for the missions with the crew, but said that SpaceX will fly a lot on the ship before performing any missions with people on board.

Tyvak lander
Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems plans to use its small satellite experience for its small moon ships. Credit: Tyvak

Blue Origin will offer NASA its Blue Moon landing pad, which the company introduced in May, capable of delivering several tons of cargo to the moon's surface. “It has a large payload, the ability to go through a moonlit night and a very large open payload deck,” said Brent Sherwood, vice president of advanced development programs at Blue Origin. He later declined to tell when the lander would be ready for CLPS missions, saying that it would depend on the specifics of each individual order of CLPS tasks.

NASA has also added small ships to the CLPS contract. “Our company is in an excellent position not only to bid for small cargoes heading to the moon, because we are creating our own satellite systems,” said John Roth, vice president of business development at SNC. Roth said the company could accept large payloads using technologies developed for its Dream Chaser car, but he did not say how much the company could carry. According to him, SNC will be able to begin flights on lunar vessels in 2022.

Michael Sims, CEO of Ceres Robotics, said his company's CLPS award is a sign of small companies such as his participation in NASA's broader plans. “For space exploration and especially for people to become multi-planetary, a whole ecosystem of companies is required,” he said. “The little player is agility and creativity that complement the mixes.” He said his company's stocks should be available for missions starting in 2023.

Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems is best known for being a manufacturer of smallsat. Marco Villa, the company's chief operating officer, said Tyvak will use this experience on its lunar ships. “We are going to start with something less,” he said. “Our flexibility and ability to scale will lead us to more and more complex tasks in the near future.” He refused to say when the ship of his company would be ready.

Five companies, selected from eight that submitted proposals for this platform, joined the original nine CLPS companies selected by NASA almost a year ago: Astrobotic, Deep Space Systems, Draper, Firefly Aerospace, Intuitive Machines, Lockheed Martin, Masten Space Systems, Moon Express and OrbitBeyond. In May, NASA transferred orders for Astrobotic, Intuitive Machines, and OrbitBeyond tasks for moonlight flights, but OrbitBeyond canceled its task order two months later, citing internal business problems.

Clark said NASA is developing new companies for supply orders that are due to be issued “soon” so CLPS can bid, and also one for the VIPER rover. The Agency is separately working on a call for proposals for scientific instruments to participate in these missions with a view to carrying out two “deliveries” of payloads to the lunar surface each year.

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