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NASA’s Plan to Hitch a Ride With Commercial Lunar Payload Service Providers is Brilliant

Designed as a workhorse that can deliver 150kg to low lunar orbit from low Earth orbit, with a range of configurationsto support lunar landing and cis-lunar operations, the MX-5 can also be outfitted with MX-1 or MX-2 staged systems that can bring the entire solar system within reach with Discovery Class capabilities. Credit: Moon Express.

Less than a month ago NASA announced that nine companies had been selected as “couriers” for future payloads to the surface of the moon. The combined maximum contract value is $2.6 billion over the next 10 years. The Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) is brilliant and here’s why.

Setting the stage

In 1996 the first X-Prize was announced. Eight years later in 2004, and fifteen years ago, Scaled Composites won the Ansari X Prize. Three years later in 2007 the Google Lunar X-Prize (GLXP) was announced. This year the X-Prize Foundation announced the discontinuation of the prize. No one had won.

As I wrote a year ago, There May Not Be a Google Lunar X Prize Winner but Winners Have Already Emerged, it was clear what the GLXP did was enable the participants to raise enough funds for several of them to keep going even without the prize money. So while no one won the contest, the larger goal had been achieved.

At the same time President Trump was signing Space Policy Directive 1 which reads in part; “Lead an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with commercial and international partners to enable human expansion across the solar system and to bring back to Earth new knowledge and opportunities. Beginning with missions beyond low-Earth orbit, the United States will lead the return of humans to the Moon for long-term exploration and utilization, followed by human missions to Mars and other destinations.”

The word commercial in the text was part of an ongoing signal by the White House that U.S. space activities must include more commercial services where possible. It wasn’t an initiative started by this administration, but it was being reinforced and taken to new heights.

The Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program

NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program is in part the result of that directive. And here’s the brilliant part, NASA only pays the providers if they’re capable of actually fulfilling their service and there’s zero guarantee that NASA will issue a single contract, though it’s expected to.

What NASA has done is say, we’ll be the customer if you can fulfill the service. We’ll put a contract dollar amount out there so the market knows what the maximum value the combined services you might provide are. Now go out an do it.

This is an in essence a next level up from the GLXP. For investors it’s a signal government is serious about this, and importantly will be a customer. For the companies selected to participate in the program, it solidifies their business plans as they seek more funding from the investment community to make it happen. Brilliant.

The companies

Of the nine companies selected to participate in the CLPS program two were part of the GLXP, Astrobotic and Moon Express.

The lcompanies selected were;

  • 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

Seven of these companies could be referred to as New Space companies, while Lockheed Martin and Draper are large, long established companies.

Canada and Moon Express

Here’s a question. Why doesn’t Canada implement its own version of the CLPS program? After all, other than Lockheed Martin, none of the other eight companies selected in the U.S. have the capability to launch their payloads. They’ll all require the services of launch vehicle provider. Canadian companies would be in the same position.

Of course, companies in Canada wanting to get their payloads to the moon could always pay one of the U.S. companies to take their payload to the moon.

Moon Express, which is led by expat Bob Richards, and which has several other Canadians working the company, plans on doing just that. They are also exploring having some of their subsystems built in Canada and are opening an office in the Toronto area.

But that’s not the point. Moon Express aside, with a Canadian government focused on innovation but unwilling to part with any substantial sums of funding for the civil space program, isn’t a program like CLPS appealing? It’s one way to minimize government investment while innovating and getting the investment community more involved.

Canada has invested in rover and robotics technology. A CLPS program would build on that.

Other than the prime’s like Airbus and MDA, there’s a whole new group of entrepreneurial Canadians wanting to go to the moon. Now might be a good time for the government to think outside the box as part of its long awaited space strategy.

About Marc Boucher

Marc Boucher
Boucher is an entrepreneur, writer, editor & publisher. He is the founder of SpaceQ Media Inc. and CEO and co-founder of SpaceRef Interactice Inc. Boucher has 20 years working in various roles in the space industry and a total of 27 years as a technology entrepreneur including creating Maple Square, Canada's first internet directory and search engine.