NASA has been talking for a while now of returning humans to the Moon’s surface and this week they announced that Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, SpaceX and eight other private companies have been awarded funding to carry out research and prototyping for the new technologies that will enable the literal moon-shot. This latest funding award totals $45.5 million, and comes not two months after NASA dished out $15 million apiece to two companies looking into 'space habitats'.
In a break with the usual way of partnering with the private sector, and in order to speed the process up, NASA are using “undefinitized contract actions” whereby work can begin before a full contract has been negotiated and agreed.
Director for human lunar exploration programs, Marshall Smith, said, “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.”
Between them, the 11 companies chosen will study different parts of the descent, transfer and refuelling parts of getting people to the lunar surface and back. (The Transfer stage referred to here is getting from the previously announced ‘Gateway’, a space station orbiting our natural satellite, into a low-lunar orbit before the descent to the surface.)
So for example, Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin will be researching ‘one descent element, one transfer vehicle study and one transfer vehicle prototype,’ while SpaceX will be focusing solely on one element of the descent. A full list of the companies and what they will be investigating for NASA is available in the press release that broke the news.
These partnerships are very open-ended as NASA is not prescribing any particular design or approach for the companies, who instead are effectively being asked, “how would you solve these problems?” As such it will be interesting to see any details of what’s actually worked on over the next six months.