NASA Announces 9 Private Partners for Return to the Moon 

"Welcome to the competition."  

NASA is launching a new effort to encourage private businesses in the United States to get into space. In Washington D.C. Thursday, leaders at the space agency announced that nine privately owned companies will be able bid on contracts to deliver supplies to the moon. And industry sources tell Inverse that this news is just the start of something much larger.

The space companies announced Thursday are:

  • Astrobotic Technology, Inc.: Pittsburgh
  • Deep Space Systems: Littleton, Colorado
  • Draper: Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • Firefly Aerospace, Inc.: Cedar Park, Texas
  • Intuitive Machines, LLC: Houston
  • Lockheed Martin Space: Littleton, Colorado
  • Masten Space Systems, Inc.: Mojave, California
  • Moon Express: Cape Canaveral, Florida
  • Orbit Beyond: Edison, New Jersey

This past May, NASA announced its intention to construct a Lunar Orbital Platform Gateway, which will serve as an outpost for future missions into deep space.

“We’re doing something that’s never been done before,” said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine Thursday. “When we go to the moon, we want to be one customer in a robust marketplace between the Earth and the moon. We want multiple providers that are competing. Welcome to the competition.”

The companies named above will become a part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services Program (CLSP). They will look to deliver payloads to the moon, where NASA intends to build infrastructure they need to stay there for the foreseeable future.

Watch: NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine Says an "Intermittent" Human Presence on the Moon By 2029

Bridenstine added that maintaining a lunar presence was in “response to the science community” who have been seeking to perform long-term experiments on the moon. To honor this, Bridenstine added that missions will be overseen by NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, not the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.

But that aside, there is far more to come from this announcement for the burgeoning commercial space industry. Les Kovacs, a spokesperson for Firefly Aerospace, a small rocket company that was tapped by NASA today says that this announcement is part of a far larger picture when it comes to space travel.

He spoke to Inverse from the 2018 SpaceCom Expo in Houston, where industry partners and NASA representatives gathered to discuss the future of private space industry.

Firefly Aerospace Concept for Launch Vehicle with Moon Lander
The Firefly Aerospace concept for a launch vehicle and moon lander.

“NASA has essentially said that they want to leave room in the lower orbit activity for commercial activity, and they want to look outward,” Kovacs says. “They want to do exploration, because that’s their fundamental tenet. That means that all of the lower orbit activity that used to be the purvey of the military, government, civil agencies that is slowly going to transition over to commercial space.”

The Lunar Gateway will also set up business in low-Earth orbit. In a memo accompanying that announcement, NASA added that the first element of that gateway a Power and Propulsion Element (PPE) will be launched in 2022 which will “not only benefit NASA, but also the domestic commercial satellite industry to maintain global advantage.”

The focus of NASA has long been on the space has been exploration — that’s the idea behind missions like the InSight Mars landing, and the upcoming Mars 2020 missions. These are government-sponsored missions, and NASA is still focused on exploration and science, but they’ve also been tasked by the federal government, with developing private partners. Today, NASA, the experts when it comes to operating off-planet, are extending a hand to a few hand-selected business partners adding them to a “catalog” of companies who may be awarded contracts in the future.

“You’re seeing the very beginnings of a world that you and I, and everyone else who is going to read this article have never seen before,” Kovacs added.

Related video: Go inside SpaceCom 2018, America’s prominent space business convention.

Days before NASA's announcement, government space agencies from around the world met with industry partners to discuss plans for the commercial space industry in 2019.