NASA’s ‘Moon Couriers’ Bring Us Closer to Commercial Space Flight

Research into lunar craters and lava plains comes ahead of NASA astronauts’ planned return to the moon by 2024.

04.06.2019 | by Christy Romer
Photo by Astrobotic
Photo by Astrobotic

It’s been fifty years since NASA astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first people in history to walk on the Moon. Now the US Government agency is taking steps towards the final frontier in space travel: Commercial space flight.

NASA has distributed $253m in contracts to three private companies to launch missions to land a series of ‘payloads’ — equipment for research, exploration, and even arts and entertainment — on parts of the moon including lunar lava plains and ‘dark spot’ craters.

This will be the first step in the Artemis programme, aiming to take the first woman and the next man to the Moon by 2024.

“Our selection of these U.S. commercial landing service providers represents America’s return to the Moon’s surface for the first time in decades, and it’s a huge step forward for our Artemis lunar exploration plans,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine explained, to Techcrunch.

“Investing in these commercial landing services also is another strong step to building a commercial space economy beyond low-Earth orbit”.

Orbit Beyond, the first of the three companies, will fly four payloads out to a crater called Mare Ibrium by September 2020.

Houston’s Intuitive Machines has been awarded $77m to fly five payloads to a dark spot on the moon called Oceanus Procellarum by July 2021. Astrobotic, which says it can be hired to deliver equipment to the Moon for $1.2m per kilogram, receives $79.5m to fly 14 payloads to a large crater on the near side of the moon called Lacus Mortis.

Astrobotic CEO John Thorton described the award as an “awe-inspiring responsibility”.

“NASA’s confidence in our services is a testament to the hard work of the Astrobotic team, which spent 12 years making commercial lunar delivery a reality. Today, that hard work has come to fruition. We are proud to join NASA in returning America to the Moon.”

NASA aims to establish a “sustainable human presence on the Moon by 2028” to make scientific discoveries and demonstrate new advancements in technology.

It also plans to “lay the foundation for private companies to build a lunar economy” — a nod to regular haulage and commercial flights up to the Moon’s surface.

Doing so would be no mean feat. Elon Musk’s SpaceX last month conducted a crewless test flight of its Crew Dragon spacecraft, a so-called ‘astronaut taxi’ — only for the spacecraft to suffer an as-yet unexplained ‘anomaly’ and end up engulfed in smoke on the beach.

But should the three private companies succeed in lugging their various payloads to the Moon, perhaps making such trips on a regular basis, it’s clear that it would only be a matter of time before those with the money to afford a ticket are strapping in and heading space-side.

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