In order to focus its efforts on deep space exploration — namely its Journey to Mars — NASA is making preparations to hand over the reigns of low-Earth orbit to the private sector. The agency is planning missions that will take humans places no other human has been before, and is relying on its heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), and deep space crew capsule, Orion, to do so. But, massive, expendable rockets come with a hefty price tag. NASA issued a Request for Information (RFI) on Thursday in hopes of collaborating with private industry to reduce the price of SLS and Orion.

NASA spends more than $3 billion annually developing these systems. Perhaps in response to an administration change, the agency is crowdsourcing ideas from the private sector to reduce production costs. NASA only receives $19 billion to begin with, so these two systems eat up a hefty portion of the budget.

The RFI offers up the chance for companies to submit ideas about other rockets and spacecraft as alternatives to NASA’s own vehicles. SpaceX and Blue Origin are both developing their own heavy-lift rockets right now, perhaps one of those could be an alternative to the SLS by the mid-2020s.

SLS will come in multiple configurations to support a variety of missions.
SLS will come in multiple configurations to support a variety of missions. 

RFIs, like the one NASA released this week, are not designed to seek out specific proposals, but are a way for the government to ask for public input. Responses from this RFI are due by December 23, and NASA is not only looking at viable alternatives to its vehicles, but is also wanting to hear ideas for new contracting methods and new ways to acquire materials.

Additionally, the request also maps out the agency’s plan for Orion and SLS in the coming years. Between now and 2030, NASA plans on flying one mission with SLS and Orion each year, with the first (Exploration Mission-1) to launch in 2018. Nearly all of the planned missions will take place in the vicinity of the Moon so NASA can properly test out the systems that will take us to Mars by the 2030s.

In September, the agency quietly sought out other uses for its Orion spacecraft. At the 67th International Astronomical Congress, Lockheed Martin (the prime contractor responsible for building Orion) unveiled its plans to use the spacecraft as a future habitat when we get to Mars. But the way the RFI is worded could mean that in the future if a competitor of the aerospace giant could present a lower-cost use for the habitat, they could potentially take over the contract after Exploration Mission-3.

With Donald Trump preparing to take office in January, there’s a lot of uncertainty as to what programs might be cut, might feel a budget strain, and which ones won’t. So, it makes sense that NASA is looking to cut spending. It will be interesting to see the ideas that stem from this RFI and how NASA’s plans change going forward.

Photos via NASA (1, 2)