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NASA picks Moon Express, Astrobotics, Masten Space Systems for lunar landers

Future lunar astronauts
Future lunar astronauts

Gizmag noted in a Friday story that NASA has chosen three companies to develop lunar landers under its Lunar Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown (Lunar CATALYST). They are Astrobotic Technology, Masten Space Systems, and Moon Express. Even though Lunar CATALYST is similar to the Commercial Crew program to develop a next generation crewed space craft, not money will exchange hands under the program. NASA will provide technical advice and use of facilities and loan of equipment as needed.

Astrobotic and Moon Express are competitors in the Google Lunar X Prize to land a private rover on the lunar surface by the end of 2015. Moon Express’s ultimate goal is to set up lunar mining operations. Masten has developed and tested a number of vertical takeoff and landing vehicles that could be adapted to lunar operations.

NASA, under presidential directive, has foresworn any ambitions for lunar exploration. However the space agency had gotten around that mandate, to a certain extent, by providing support for commercial operations aimed at the moon. A recent study commissioned by NASA and conducted by Bigelow Aerospace suggests that a commercial lunar base might be feasible given space agency support.

But the question arise, how much support will be forthcoming? Under current policy, the answer has to be not much. But if, as some have suggested, the next administration revisits that policy and reorients NASA back toward the moon, things might change. Lunar CATALYST could be the germ of something larger.

One could conceive of the program being expanded so that NASA actually buys lunar missions from one or more of the three companies under the Lunar CATALYST program, restarting lunar exploration. Further down the road, using scaled up versions of the landing vehicles under development, NASA could partner with commercial companies, adding its own Orion spacecraft and the Space Launch System heavy lift rocket, to return to the moon sooner than many imagine is possible.