NASA officials say nine U.S. companies now are eligible to bid on NASA delivery services to the lunar surface through Commercial Lunar Payload Services contracts, as one of the first steps toward long-term scientific study and human exploration of the Moon.
The announcement Thursday from NASA headquarters was one that realigns the thrust of lunar exploration from a government-oriented program to one where NASA becomes one of many customers and the private sector does the heavy-lifting.
The new program may sound a great deal like the commercial cargo and space station resupply program.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstein says that's because they took note of the success of that program, and decided to follow a similar path for operations in near-lunar space and on the lunar surface.
It's a strategy that Bridenstein says will minimize cost and risk for all partners involved.
These companies will be able to bid on delivering science and technology payloads for NASA, including payload integration and operations, launching from Earth and landing on the surface of the Moon.
NASA expects to be one of many customers that will use these commercial landing services.
Administrator Bridenstein said this presaged great things for U.S. space efforts and set the stage for further innovation along the high frontier.
The selected companies are Astrobotic Technology, which is based in Pittsburgh; Deep Space Systems of Littleton, Colorado; Draper, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Firefly Aerospace, Inc., based in Cedar Park, Texas; Houston-based Intuitive Machines, LLC; Lockheed Martin Space, out of Littleton, Colorado; Masten Space Systems of Mojave, California; Moon Express, based in Cape Canaveral; and Orbit Beyond, which is headquartered in Edison, New Jersey.
NASA's Science Mission Directorate initiated the request for proposals leading to these selections as the first step in achieving a variety of science and technology objectives that could be addressed by regularly sending instruments, experiments and other small payloads to the Moon, according to a space agency release.
NASA officials say the Commercial Lunar Payload Services contracts are indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity contracts with a combined maximum contract value of $2.6 billion during the next 10 years, according to NASA.
The agency says it will look at a number of factors when comparing the bids, such as technical feasibility, price and schedule.
NASA officials say lunar payloads potentially could fly on these contracted missions as early as 2019.