NASA has revealed an ambitious plan to return to the moon this year with help from commercial partners.
The announcement came during a briefing at NASA Headquarters at the opening of an industry forum for the agency’s lunar exploration plans on February 14. During the briefing, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine expressed the need to get back to the moon as quickly as possible while ensuring efforts were sustainable.
“We want this reusability, we want this sustainability, but we also want to go fast,” said Bridenstine. “It’s important that we get back to the moon as fast as possible.”
NASA hopes to share the burden of returning to the moon after a nearly 50-year absence with commercial partners. Instead of developing and launching their own dedicated lunar systems, the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program aims to purchase payload space on commercially developed landers.
“Building on our model in low-Earth orbit, we’ll expand our partnerships with industry and other nations to explore the Moon,” said Bridenstine.
The first CLPS contracts were awarded to nine companies in November 2018. The companies that were selected range from established titans of the aerospace industry like Lockheed Martin, to upstarts like Firefly Aerospace (the seven other companies selected are Astrobotic Technology, Deep Space Systems, Draper, Intuitive Machines, Masten Space Systems, Moon Express, and Orbit Beyond).
Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science explained that in order to incentivise one of its commercial partners to be ready to launch this year, the agency would offer unspecified financial bonuses.
In preparation for one or several commercial partners meeting NASA’s ambitious deadline, the agency has begun to develop potential payloads. The announcement on the first 12 of these proposed payloads is expected on February 18. According to Zurbuchen, they will feature a combination of both science and technology demonstration payloads.