January 21, 2014
NASA is expanding its push for commercial partnerships in space projects, with a call for proposals from private companies that may be able to use the agency’s lunar-landing know-how in exchange for rides to the surface of the Moon.
The move, an apparent effort by the U.S. space agency to take advantage of the investment going into the Google Lunar X Prize competition, is aimed at setting up one or more Space Act agreements (SAA) with private companies working on commercial lunar missions on a no-exchange-of-funds basis. A pre-proposal teleconference is scheduled for Jan. 27.
Known as the Lunar Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown (Lunar Catalyst), the program advances a growing push to cooperation over competition in government-backed spaceflight. That approach extends to the private sector, exemplified by NASA’s new reliance on commercial cargo carriers to deliver supplies to the International Space Station.
“We’re witnessing a fundamental change in how we conduct space exploration, how we approach space exploration,” Administrator Charles Bolden told reporters Jan. 10 at the conclusion of an international summit that drew more than 30 space agency chiefs to Washington. “We’re finding that the private sector is becoming a part of the partnership. International partners are becoming vital for each of us.“
In addition to the minds of the lunar-landing experts, NASA would give SAA partners access to testing facilities and other infrastructure, equipment loans, and the use of software for development and testing. Agency engineers are working in-house on two different lander projects—Morpheus and Mighty Eagle.
“As NASA pursues an ambitious plan for humans to explore an asteroid and Mars, U.S. industry will create opportunities for NASA to advance new technologies on the Moon,” stated Deputy Associate Administrator Greg Williams of the Human Exploration and Operations mission directorate. “Our strategic investments in the innovations of our commercial partners have brought about successful commercial resupply of the International Space Station, to be followed in the coming years by commercial crew. Lunar Catalyst will help us advance our goals to reach farther destinations.”
Among activities NASA may want to conduct with a commercial partner on the lunar surface are sample return, technology demonstration, prospecting for resources and deploying geophysical networks. The agency is looking for landers than can place payloads in the 66-220-lb. and 551-1,102-lb. classes on the Moon’s surface.
“In recent years, lunar orbiting missions—such as NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter—have revealed evidence of water and other volatiles, but to understand the extent and accessibility of these resources, we need to reach the surface and explore up-close,” said Jason Crusan, director of Advanced Exploration Systems at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Commercial lunar landing capabilities could help prospect for and utilize these resources.”