On January 16, 2014 NASA announced a new program called Lunar Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown (Lunar CATALYST) that will provide non monetary aid to private companies developing robotic lunar landers. The space agency is requesting proposals from private industry, due by March 17, 2014, that could lead to Space Act Agreements that will involve NASA providing the following services to commercial enterprises.
“NASA Civil Servant Technical Expertise: NASA civil servants could provide lessons learned and feedback on lander design, development, and testing.NASA will not provide or develop any designs under the SAA.
“Facilities: NASA can provide industry partners, at no cost, access to testing facilities such as thermal vacuum chambers, vertical flight test beds, clean rooms, etc., on a non interference basis
“Equipment: NASA may loan equipment (non - expendable hardware items) to industry partners, in accordance with NPD 4200.1 and NPR 4200.1.
“Software: NASA may be able to contribute specific software elements for the development and testing of the lander.”
The number of Space Act Agreements will depend on the number of strong proposals and the availability of NASA resources.
The reason for the Lunar CATALYST program is that NASA desires “the development of reliable and cost-effective commercial robotic lunar lander capabilities that will enable the delivery of payloads to the lunar surface. Such capabilities could support commercial activities on the moon while enabling new science and exploration missions of interest to NASA and the larger scientific and academic communities.”
Currently NASA is not contemplating any lunar missions of its own, by presidential directive, and is concentrating on asteroid and Mars exploration. However this initiative does a number of things.
First it provides support for commercial space enterprises, some of what are already involved in the Google Lunar X Prize, that are interested in conducting commercial operations on the moon. This is in accordance to a policy that aligns NASA in support of the commercial sector started under President George W. Bush.
Second the initiative opens up NASA’s options for lunar exploration if (perhaps when) national space policy returns to an emphasis to lunar exploration. If a number of commercial companies are able to develop vehicles that land on the moon, NASA could purchase services from these companies to carry its own payloads to the lunar surface.