NASA is gearing up to request industry proposals for using robotic landers to place small payloads on the moon, an agency official said Sept. 7.

“We’re preparing for the solicitation as we speak,” said Jason Crusan, director of NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems Division, who testified at a lunar-exploration hearing before the House Science, Space and Technology Committee’s space panel.

Artist's illustration of a potential base on the moon. Photo: NexGen Space LLC.
Artist’s illustration of a potential base on the moon. Photo: NexGen Space LLC.

The request for proposals (RFP), whose release date has not been announced, will build on a request for information (RFI) the agency issued in May for lunar surface cargo transportation services.

“NASA has identified a variety of exploration, science and technology demonstration objectives that could be addressed by sending instruments, experiments or other payloads to the lunar surface,” the RFI says.

Crusan said NASA has growing confidence in industry’s ability to provide such services, and has included money for such services in its fiscal year 2018 budget request, which is pending in Congress. At the hearing, representatives of three companies – Astrobotic Technology, Blue Origin and Moon Express – outlined their efforts to develop lunar landers.

Moon Express plans to launch its MX-1E lander for the first time next year. The small spacecraft will carry up to 30 kilograms (66 pounds) of commercial and scientific payloads for customers that include Google, the International Lunar Observatory Association, Italy’s National Laboratories of Frascati, memorial spaceflight provider Celestis and the University of Maryland.

The Federal Aviation Administration authorized the mission last year. Moon Express plans to conduct launches at least once a year and is under contract for a total of up to five launches on Rocket Lab’s new Electron rocket. Moon Express hopes to eventually scale up to larger landers, said Bob Richards, the company’s founder and chief executive officer.

Astrobotic plans to launch its Peregrine Lunar Lander for the first time in 2019 on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas 5 rocket. The lander will deliver 35 kilograms (77 pounds) of payload to the moon for governments, companies, universities, non-profits and individuals. For later missions, Astrobotic wants to increase the lander’s payload to up to 265 kilograms (584 pounds).

“What we have determined is 265 kilograms of capacity serves the majority of the existing market for payload delivery,” said John Thornton, Astrobotic’s CEO.

Blue Origin’s Blue Moon is being designed to deliver large payloads ranging from 1,000 pounds to more than 10,000 pounds, said Bretton Alexander, director of business development and strategy at Blue Origin. While it is “optimized” to fly on NASA’s future Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, it could fly on other vehicles, including an Atlas 5 and Blue Origin’s New Glenn.

Blue Origin is making “significant investments” in “foundational technologies” needed for Blue Moon and is willing to expand that investment if it can form a partnership with NASA, Alexander said. For example, Blue Origin envisions using Blue Moon to deliver cargo to enable future human missions by NASA.