NASA is interested in the Moon again. This week, the space agency issued a new “request for information” to the aerospace industry for cargo transportation to the lunar surface. This new opportunity appears to represent NASA’s increasing willingness to reconsider the Moon as a destination for human spaceflight.
In the request, offered jointly by the agency’s science, human spaceflight, and technology directorates, NASA seeks to partner with the commercial sector to deliver scientific payloads to the Moon. “NASA has identified a variety of exploration, science, and technology demonstration objectives that could be addressed by sending instruments, experiments, or other payloads to the lunar surface,” the document states. “To address these objectives as cost-effectively as possible, NASA may procure payloads and related commercial payload delivery services to the Moon.”
Specifically, the request seeks opportunities as early as fiscal year 2018, running through the next decade for “agreed-upon” locations on the Moon, and the provision of power, communications, and thermal control both during the flight and on the surface of the Moon. Additionally, in the request, NASA says it may also seek the return of lunar samples to Earth.
This opportunity comes just a few months after NASA announced a separate program, CATALYST, that would allow the agency to add instruments to small lunar landers. The agency’s overall goal remains addressing its “knowledge gaps,” an understanding of which would increase the effectiveness and improve the design of robotic and human space exploration missions to the Moon.
Bob Richards, founder of Moon Express, which responded to the CATALYST opportunity, said the new NASA opportunity represents a desire to extend commercial partnerships from low Earth orbit into deep space. “NASA’s public-private partnerships are working in low Earth orbit, and they will work for lunar exploration as well,” he told Ars. “I am very pleased to see NASA reaching out to the commercial space industry for potential transportation services supporting lunar science.”
Moon, then Mars?
For the last six years, or so, NASA has set Mars as its destination for human spaceflight, saying it will bypass crewed missions to the surface of the Moon in order to expedite humans to Mars. However, the agency’s chief of human spaceflight, William Gerstenmaier, has acknowledged that the presence of ice at the lunar poles, a potential source of propellant, could dramatically reduce the cost of sending humans beyond the Earth-Moon system.
Now, NASA seems to be setting into motion scientific missions that could begin to answer questions about the volume of that ice, its characteristics, its accessibility, and ultimately its viability as a source of rocket fuel. And it is doing so with an increasing number of private partners, such as Moon Express, who have built business plans around commercial activity on the Moon.
The new opportunities come as the Trump administration has signaled an interest in both lunar surface activities and accelerating NASA’s plans to send humans into deep space. Industry has responded with a number of different ideas, including Bigelow Aerospace’s inflatable modules on the lunar surface, Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lander concept, and SpaceX’s lunar flybys. Thus, while it is not yet certain how NASA’s destinations for human spaceflight will shake out during the Trump administration, it seems clear that NASA is keeping its lunar options open.