Commercial space ventures hail NASA opportunities in orbit and on the moon

Astrobotic's Peregrine lander
An artist’s conception shows Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander on the lunar surface. (Astrobotic Illustration)

The Trump administration’s proposed shift to commercial partners for space operations in low Earth orbit as well as on and around the moon is getting a predictably positive reception from those potential partners.

“This moment here, with the shift to the moon, is what we’ve waited 10 years for,” John Thornton, CEO of Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic, told Geekwire. Astrobotic has been working on a series of private-sector lunar landing missions and is now looking forward to heightened interest from NASA.

Over the next few years, hundreds of millions of dollars would be set aside for private-sector moon missions and for commercial ventures in low Earth orbit — either by putting private ventures in charge of the U.S. segment of the International Space Station, or by establishing new orbital platforms.

Not everyone is thrilled by the budget proposal, in part because it calls for phasing out federal funding for the space station by 2025. The critics include leading members of Congress who will have to fine-tune and approve the budget proposed today.

Today Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said abandoning the space station would be a “non-starter.”

“Turning off the lights and walking away from our sole outpost in space at a time when we’re pushing the frontiers of exploration makes no sense,” Nelson said in a tweet.

But Robert Bigelow, the billionaire founder of Nevada-based Bigelow Aerospace, said the shift toward commercialization is “Earth-shattering news.”

“Bigelow Aerospace applauds the focus on commercial partnerships for low Earth orbit and lunar exploration, and stands ready to partner with NASA and others — in new and exciting ways that we will announce in the near future,” he said in a tweeted statement.

Space station ventures

Bigelow already has a test module on the space station, and has proposed sending up even bigger expandable habitats for use in Earth orbit and lunar orbit.

Two other private ventures, Axiom Space and NanoRacks, have their own plans for orbital space platforms. Axiom Space would consider incorporating some elements of the International Space Station into its own commercial station if they became available sometime after 2024.

“We would continue on the work that was already begun on the ISS without throwing it all away,” Axiom Space CEO Michael Suffredini told CNBC. “Otherwise entities would need to build new hardware and get it to orbit all over again.”

NanoRacks is already working with NASA to develop a commercial air lock for the space station, with an eye toward moving the hardware to an entirely commercial space station some years into the future. The Texas-based company is also part of NASA’s NextSTEP-2 program to develop space habitat prototypes, along with Bigelow, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK and Sierra Nevada Corp.

The NextSTEP program is expected to show the way toward the establishment of a Deep Space Gateway — or Lunar Orbital Platform Gateway, to use NASA’s new term. The LOP Gateway would be assembled in lunar orbit in the 2020s and help blaze a trail for Mars.

Nanoracks CEO Jeffrey Manber, told GeekWire that NASA’s proposal for the post-2025 time period was well-timed. “They should be applauded for raising the issue now, rather than when it’s too late,” he said.

Manber said today’s announcement should help NanoRacks and other ventures raise capital for an assortment of orbital platforms, tailored for astronaut training, space tourism or robotic manufacturing.

NASA’s five-year spending plan calls for setting aside $150 million in 2019 to support the transition to commercial operations in low Earth orbit, with that figure rising to $225 in fiscal 2023. The agency plans to conduct an open competition this year for commercial capabilities, which may involve the International Space Station or free-flying orbital platforms, according to Andrew Hunter, NASA’s chief financial officer.

Moon ventures

When it comes to commercial moon exploration, the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize helped blaze a trail, even though none of the teams will end up winning the top prize. The competition encouraged the development of lunar landers such as Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander and Moon Express’ MX-1E spacecraft.

Those ventures, along with Masten Space Systems, are participating in NASA’s Lunar CATALYST program (a.k.a. Lunar Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown), which facilitates the exchange of information — but no NASA funds.

NASA’s 2019 budget proposal aims to change all that, with $200 million set aside for commercial lunar landing services. NASA’s Hunter said a request for proposals relating to carrying a NASA payload to the moon is expected to go out sometime in the next two or three months, with the “mission of opportunity” to be flown in the 2019-2020 time frame.

That timetable suits Astrobotic’s Thornton just fine. He told GeekWire that his company has “plenty of room for NASA” aboard its Peregrine lander, which is currently due for launch in 2020 aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket.

Eleven commercial ride-along deals have already been struck, at a price of $1.2 million per kilogram (2.2 pounds), Thornton said. “We’re down to about a dozen kilos available commercially,” he said. Astrobotic is reserving an additional amount of mass for NASA, but Thornton declined to say how much.

Astrobotic’s first mission is aiming for Lacus Mortis, a region in the lunar mid-latitudes with a pit that could provide protection for a future habitat. Follow-on missions could go to places around the lunar poles that offer reserves of water ice.

Moon Express and Masten Space Systems also hailed NASA’s heightened support for lunar initiatives. Moon Express, which was co-founded by Seattle-area tech entrepreneur Naveen Jain, is working on a plan that would make use of Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle to send landers on their way to the lunar surface.

“The future has never been brighter for our commercial lunar business plans, and we look forward to an expanding partnership with NASA in supporting a U.S. return to the moon, and a new era of lunar exploration and discovery supporting science and commerce,” Moon Express CEO Bob Richards said in an emailed statement.

David Masten, the chairman and chief technology officer of Masten Space Systems, voiced cautious optimism about NASA’s lunar lander initiative.

“It’s a good start,” Masten said in a tweet that was accompanied by an emoji face with a winking eye and stuck-out tongue. “But the devil is in the details, and we’ll see where we are after Congress takes it up.”

Later on, heavier-duty landers — such as the Blue Moon system that’s being offered to NASA by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture — may come into play. The granddaddy of all landers would be SpaceX’s BFR spaceship, which Elon Musk has proposed for trips to the moon as well as Mars.

Endangered ventures

The downside of NASA’s proposal was that after this year, funding levels would recede slightly from $19.9 billion to a flat level of $19.6 billion, with no accommodation for inflation. What’s more, several programs would be canceled entirely, including five Earth science missions, NASA’s Office of Education and the space agency’s $3 billion-plus Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope, or WFIRST.

WFIRST is in the very early planning stages, but it’s seen as a long-term successor to the James Webb Space Telescope, which is due to be launched in the 2019-2020 time frame.

The proposed cutbacks already have sparked an outcry in some quarters on Twitter. Here’s a sampling:

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