Nine private spaceflight companies are bidding on contracts to deliver robotic NASA payloads to the moon — and Thursday NASA said they’d like them to start flying “this calendar year.”
Discover magazine reports NASA envisions this “as the first step toward returning to the moon, this time for good.”
The first tasks will be to practice launching and landing on the moon, as well as answering questions about its surface… They will test habitation for future crewed missions. They’ll prove that they can collect materials from the lunar surface and return them to space or Earth. And they’ll establish communication networks between robots on the moon’s surface, way stations in lunar orbit, and mission control on Earth.
But NASA also wants to deploy demo technology that can mine the moon’s resources “to pave the way for human settlement,” Space.com reports:
The main lunar resource to be exploited, at least initially, is water. The lunar surface has lots of this stuff, locked up as ice on the permanently shadowed floors of polar craters. This water will aid lunar settlement and further exploration, and not just by slaking astronauts’ thirst, NASA officials say. Water can also be split into its constituent hydrogen and oxygen, the chief components of rocket fuel.
The Commercial Lunar Payload Services program is just part of NASA’s broad moon-exploration plan, which prioritizes an open architecture that encourages cooperation with many commercial and international partners. (Indeed, NASA wants to be the commercial landers’ first, but not only, customer.) One of the most critical pieces of this plan is a small space station, called the Gateway, which NASA aims to start building in lunar orbit in 2022. Gateway will be a hub for many kinds of lunar exploration, including sorties to the surface by landers both crewed and uncrewed.
If everything goes according to plan, NASA astronauts will take their first such sortie in 2028 — 56 years after Apollo 17 crewmembers left the last boot prints on the lunar surface