Washington, DC, United States: Getting to the Moon, while not easy, has been done. Staying on the Moon and reaching Mars, however, haven’t. Why? Because space travel and sustaining life off Earth are anything but easy.
It is for that reason that the United States’s space agency NASA on Monday enlisted the engineering muscle of what are arguably the commercial space industry’s upstarts – Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX among them – to prepare the ground for its planned 2024 crewed moon shot.
“We have a need and saw a need to bring on some additional providers that had enhanced lander capabilities,” Steve Clarke, deputy associate administrator for exploration in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a conference call with media.
“This is based on our objectives, the agency’s objectives, to get to the moon as soon as possible, both from a scientific standpoint and from a human exploration standpoint,” he said.
A year ago, NASA announced that nine US companies were eligible to bid for contracts to regularly launch spacecraft carrying instruments and experiments, and to land that cargo on the moon as early as next year. But in May, when the space agency tapped three of those companies to send robotic landers next year, only two committed to that timeline.
The importance of deadlines intensified last week as NASA’s Office of the Inspector General released two highly critical reports that depicted “technical challenges, cost increases and schedule delays”. The report and Monday’s announcement come as US politicians are debating the agency’s 2020 budget request for $22.6bn, and whether a crewed 2024 moon mission is even feasible.
In May, NASA’s Administrator Jim Bridenstine said returning to the moon was necessary to build the infrastructure and knowledge base to send astronauts to Mars. Today that mission scope may well have expanded to Jupiter’s moon Europa, as NASA’s scientists have confirmed that they have detected water vapour above that moon’s icy crust.
NASA believes this discovery is further evidence that the essential ingredients for life – chemical elements, sources of energy and liquid water – are on Europa.
Closer to home, NASA’s Monday announcement to expand by five the pool of eligible bidders for taking payloads to and from the Earth’s moon, increased the total of commercial providers to 14. A few of the new additions – Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada Corporation and SpaceX – are notable for not having been on last year’s original list.
“We’re honoured to join this community of 14 providers, diverse providers that are taking us back to the moon. And we are going,” said Brent Sherwood, vice president of Advanced Development Programs at Blue Origin. “It’s very exciting times. We’re using our Blue Moon lander, which is [a] big one.”
While payloads bring to mind images of cargo, the companies said they wanted to expand their services to include passengers.
Rounding out the five awardees, NASA also chose to receive bids from two relatively smaller organisations, Ceres Robotics and Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems Inc, for indefinite delivery – indefinite quantity services with a combined maximum value of $2.6bn over the next decade.
“Space exploration, and especially humans becoming multi-planetary, requires an entire ecosystem to do what has to be done,” said Michael Sims, CEO and Founder of Ceres Robotics Inc.
“There are the big established players, as for example around the table SpaceX and Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada and Tyvak, but there are also small players. And we are one of those. The small players bring an agility and creativity that adds to the mix.”