NASA is going to land on the moon again, maybe as soon as next year.
It will still be a while — no sooner than 2024 — before any astronauts return, but NASA plans to send a series of small robotic landers carrying experiments and technology packages to the lunar surface.
On Friday, NASA announced the first contracts to build those spacecraft. They were awarded to Astrobotic Technology of Pittsburgh, Intuitive Machines of Houston and Orbit Beyond of Edison, N.J.
Although not as exciting as a human mission — which the agency optimistically hopes to accomplish before the end of 2024 — these landers would be the first American spacecraft to land on the moon since the astronauts of Apollo 17 left there in 1972.
Orbit Beyond is aiming to be the first to take off, in September 2020. The company, with NASA’s award of $97 million, has proposed flying as many as four payloads to Mare Imbrium, a lava plain in one of the moon’s craters.
Astrobotic is aiming for launch dates in the summer of 2021. It has been awarded $79.5 million and has proposed flying as many as 14 payloads to Lacus Mortis, another lunar crater.
Intuitive Machines has been awarded $77 million to fly as many as five payloads to Oceanus Procellarum, an intriguing dark spot on the moon.
In November, NASA announced that it had selected nine companies to compete for up to $2.6 billion over the next decade for taking payloads to the moon, part of a program called Commercial Lunar Payload Services. These could be small experiments like retroreflectors — essentially, fancy mirrors that reflect light in the direction it came from — which would enable precise measurements of the moon’s gravity.
These spacecraft would be small — far too small for astronauts or even to carry supplies to the surface. (They will probably be similar in size to Beresheet, the moon lander built by an Israeli nonprofit that attempted to land there earlier this year, but crashed.)
However, these spacecraft could survey potential landing sites for human missions. The next astronaut missions are to head near the lunar South Pole where there is ice frozen in the eternal shadows of some craters. The ice would not only be a source of water, but could also be broken apart into hydrogen and oxygen. Both could provide propellant for rocket engines, and the oxygen would also provide air for astronauts to breathe.
No one knows how hard it will be to extract ice; it could be sparsely distributed and mixed with dirt and rocks.
The missions could also deliver prototypes of future telescopes and other scientific instruments.
Unlike past moon programs, which have been designed and operated by NASA, the space agency wants to take a low-cost, high-risk approach here.
Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator for NASA’s science directorate, uses a hockey analogy: NASA wants to take many shots on goal, not expecting all of them to score.
Some, maybe most, of these companies will likely fail. But the hope is that effort kick-starts a new industry, essentially a FedEx or U.P.S. to the moon, much like SpaceX got in the business of carrying supplies to the International Space Station at lower cost and was able to use the same rocket for commercial satellite launches. Eventually the companies that succeed could offer services not only to NASA but to companies also wanting to set up shop on the moon.
What is unknown is how skilled these companies are and how good a goalie the moon is at blocking spacecraft.