NASA chooses 3 companies to help astronauts walk around the moon

NASA chooses 3 companies to help astronauts walk around the moon

NASA will rent some cool wheels to go around the moon.

Space agency officials announced Wednesday that they have hired three companies to come up with preliminary designs for vehicles to ferry NASA astronauts around the lunar south polar region in the coming years. After the astronauts return to Earth, these vehicles will be able to drive themselves as robotic explorers, similar to NASA’s Mars rovers.

The self-driving capability would also allow the vehicle to meet the astronaut’s next mission at a different location.

“Where it’s going, there are no roads,” Jacob Pletcher, NASA’s chief exploration scientist, said at a news conference on Wednesday. “Its movement will radically change our view of the Moon.”

The companies are Intuitive Machines of Houston, which successfully landed a robotic spacecraft on the moon in February; Lunar Outpost in Golden, Colorado; and Venturi Astrolab of Hawthorne, California. Only one of the three will build a rover for NASA and send it to the Moon.

NASA has requested proposals for what it calls a Lunar Terrain Vehicle, or LTV, that could drive at speeds of up to 9.3 mph, travel dozens of miles on a single charge and allow astronauts to drive for eight hours.

The agency will work with the three companies for a year to further develop their designs. NASA will then select one of them for the demonstration phase.

The LTV will not be ready in time for the Artemis 3 astronauts, the first landing in NASA’s return to the moon program, which is currently scheduled for 2026.

The plan is for the LTV to be on the lunar surface before the Artemis V landing, the third astronaut landing expected in 2030, said Lara Kearney, program manager for extravehicular activity and human lunar mobility at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

“If they can get there early, we will do it early,” Ms. Kearney said.

The LTV contract will be worth up to $4.6 billion over the next 15 years — five years of development and then a decade of lunar operations, most of which will go to the winner of this competition. But Ms. Kearney said the contracts allow NASA to fund the development of additional vehicles later, or allow other companies to compete in the future.

The contract follows NASA’s recent strategy of purchasing services rather than hardware.

In the past, NASA paid aerospace companies to build vehicles that they then owned and operated. This included the Saturn V rocket, the space shuttles, and the lunar rovers — known as lunar rovers — that astronauts piloted on the lunar surface during the last three Apollo missions in 1971 and 1972.

The new approach has proven successful and less expensive to transport cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station. NASA now pays companies, particularly Elon Musk’s SpaceX, a flat fee for those services, akin to plane tickets or FedEx shipments.

For the company chosen to build the LTV, the vehicle will remain its property, and that company will be able to lease it to other customers when NASA no longer needs it.

“It is commercially available for us, as a commercial company, to sell the capacity of that vehicle, and to do so for international partners, other commercial companies and space agencies around the world,” said Steve Altemus, CEO of Intuitive Machines.

Competition has created alliances between small startups and larger, more established airlines, as well as automobile companies. The Intuitive Machines team includes Boeing, Northrop Grumman and tire maker Michelin. Lunar Outpost has added to its team Lockheed Martin, Goodyear and General Motors, which helped design the Apollo lunar rovers.

Astrolab is working with Axiom Space of Houston, which has sent private astronauts to the space station and is building a commercial module for the International Space Station. Astrolabe announced last year that it had signed an agreement to send one of its rovers to the moon aboard a SpaceX Starship rocket as early as 2026. A company spokesperson said that this mission is independent of whether NASA selects it or not.

While Lunar Outpost is competing with Intuitive Machines for this contract, it plans to work with the company separately, sending smaller robotic rovers to the moon aboard the company’s lunar landers.

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