In a media teleconference last week, NASA’s Acting Associate Administrator for International and Interagency Relations Mike Gold, and Director of Commercial Spaceflight Development Phil McAlister announced that two U.S. companies, Lunar Outpost of Golden, Colorado, and Masten Space Systems of Mojave, California; and two foreign companies, ispace Japan of Tokyo, and ispace Europe of Luxembourg, had been selected to collect lunar resources under the Artemis program.
The contracts require each company to “collect a small amount of lunar regolith from any location on the Moon, provide imagery of the collection, and the collected material, along with data that identifies the collection location.” After collection, an “in-situ” transfer of ownership will take place, and the material becomes the sole property of NASA.
The recent NASA conference wasn’t about successful commercial bidders for a moon rock expedition, but about establishing serious precedent for a major restructuring of the way society thinks about space exploration.
For all of the enthusiasm with which the landmark “breaking news” was delivered, most of the reporters were left puzzled. “What happens to the regolith samples?” Nothing. “Yes, but when will NASA launch a retrieval mission?” No such plans are underway. “Okay, but how will NASA retrieve their property?” Unless the regolith shows unexpected qualities, they probably won’t be retrieved. “So … NASA is contracting four companies to fly to the moon at their own expense, deploy excavators to gather samples from any location on the lunar surface, take ‘in-situ’ ownership of the samples, and just leave the samples?” Precisely.
It just wasn’t sinking in. I mean, even if the total price of all four sampling missions was only $25,001 — less than the price of an Apollo-era spacesuit glove — what was the point?
Gold began the teleconference acknowledging that current hopes for space stood squarely on the shoulders of the Apollo program but insisted that the Apollo program suffered from a non-trivial flaw: it ended. “Artemis must, and will be different. We will not only land the first woman and next man on the Moon, but we will create a sustainable paradigm to support a permanent presence on the lunar surface,” said Gold. “The ability to extract and utilize space resources is the key to achieving this objective of sustainability. We must learn to generate our own water, air, and even fuel. Living off the land will enable ambitious exploration activities that will result in awe inspiring science and unprecedented discoveries.” In a nutshell? In-situ resource utilization (ISRU) is critical to the Artemis program, and to Mars colonization.
The reporters were waiting to hear how NASA was going to learn anything about lunar resources from little piles of regolith scattered pretty much at random across the lunar surface. But then it began to make sense. Space resources may well be the fuel that will propel America and all of humanity to the stars, but this mission wasn’t about the stupid moon dust. This mission was all about jumpstarting a home-grown commercial space industry that could affordably, and profitably, support the new NASA. The days when taxpayers were allowed to fund Apollo missions, space labs, space stations, and space shuttles are over — forever.
NASA is essentially piggybacking on private sector space capabilities — compliant with Artemis Accords and the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. “We are creating a legal precedent which allows private commercial entities to mine the moon and other celestial bodies,” Gold said. “It is very important to establish precedent, that private sector entities can extract can take these resources, and NASA can purchase and utilize them to fuel not only NASA’s activities, but a whole new dynamic era of public and private development and exploration on the Moon, and eventually, Mars.”
According to Phil McAlister, the premise of this entire effort is that the private sector is going there already: “We assumed that we weren’t going to have to pay for any development — and in fact we said so explicitly in the RFP [Request for Proposal] that we weren’t going to pay for any development. Just pay for the collected material.”
NASA solicited fixed-price quotes using simplified acquisition procedures and selected companies using a “low-priced, technically acceptable” selection method. The winning bids ran from $1 (Lunar Outpost) to $15,000 (Masten Space Systems, with ispace Japan and ispace Europe bidding $5,000 each. Companies received 10 percent of their total proposed price upon award, will receive 10 percent upon launch, and will receive the remaining 80 percent upon successful completion. Again, it is all about precedent. Did NASA actually cut a check to Lunar Outpost for 10 cents? Yes. Absolutely.
The precedent of NASA paying Russia’s Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) to “shuttle” American astronauts to the International Space Station has given way to NASA paying SpaceX to carry astronauts and supplies, which in turn has led towards private-sector to private-sector partnerships. All four participants in the Artemis “regolith collection” mission will likely contract with SpaceX to transport their orbiters/landers/rovers to the lunar surface atop SpaceX’s highly successful Falcon 9 rockets. Lunar Outpost is contracting for a Blue Moon lander to deliver its Mobile Autonomous Prospecting Platform (MAPP) rover, and at least one of the participants, Masten Space Systems, is marketing excess cargo space on its landing platform, Masten Mission One (MM1), to any and all takers.
The presser wasn’t about successful commercial bidders for a moon rock expedition, but rather all about establishing serious precedent for a major restructuring of the way society thinks about space exploration. National pride, the sense of adventure, and pushing the limits of human endeavor all are certainly motivating factors for an advanced society to risk time, treasure, and even human lives — but the commercial innovations outlined by NASA’s novel private partnership are nothing less than the major impetus for a New Space economy.
Which is a good thing. If a Biden–Harris administration becomes a reality, NASA desperately needs a White Knight to fend off the resulting hostile takeover that will certainly result in widespread cancellation of Artemis Moon to Mars initiatives and a “repurposing” of NASA resources from space exploration to “global warming/Earth science” missions.
According to McAlister, “Leveraging commercial involvement enhances our ability to safely return to the Moon in a sustainable, innovative, and affordable fashion.” He might as well have added, “And may be our only hope of holding on in some small way to some of what we have accomplished over the last four years.”