You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Houston company among 9 tapped to build moon landers

Houston Chronicle logo Houston Chronicle 11/29/2018 Alex Stuckey, Houston Chronicle
a close up of an engine: This is a rendering of Houston-based Intuitive Machines' moon lander, known as Nova-C. The company was one of nine chosen by NASA to build a lander that could carry science experiments and instruments to the lunar surface. © CREDIT: Intuitive Machines This is a rendering of Houston-based Intuitive Machines' moon lander, known as Nova-C. The company was one of nine chosen by NASA to build a lander that could carry science experiments and instruments to the lunar surface.

Houston-based Intuitive Machines was one of nine companies tapped Thursday by NASA to build moon landers as part of a new strategy in which the space agency is a customer rather than a builder.

a man in a blue suitcase: Bill Bluethmann, a robotics enginer at Johnson Space Center, talks about at the Resource Prospector 2015 Rover Prototype at the space center in this November 2017 file photo. © Brett Coomer, Staff / Houston Chronicle Bill Bluethmann, a robotics enginer at Johnson Space Center, talks about at the Resource Prospector 2015 Rover Prototype at the space center in this November 2017 file photo.

“When we go to the moon we want to be one customer of many customers in a robust marketplace between the Earth and the moon,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a news conference livestreamed from NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. “We want multiple providers that are competing on cost and innovation.”

a close up of a truck: The Resource Prospector 2015 Rover Prototype is shown at Johnson Space Center on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017, in Houston. The rover is designed to drill into the moon's crust in search of water. © Brett Coomer, Staff / Houston Chronicle The Resource Prospector 2015 Rover Prototype is shown at Johnson Space Center on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017, in Houston. The rover is designed to drill into the moon's crust in search of water.

Taking this approach will allow NASA to focus on furthering human exploration to the moon and then to Mars, which President Donald Trump has tried to expand since taking office in 2017.

a man standing on a cart: Bill Bluethmann, a robotics enginer at Johnson Space Center, talks about at the Resource Prospector 2015 Rover Prototype at the space center in this November 2017 file photo. © Hearst Newspapers Bill Bluethmann, a robotics enginer at Johnson Space Center, talks about at the Resource Prospector 2015 Rover Prototype at the space center in this November 2017 file photo.

The companies chosen Thursday will build the landers but not necessarily the science experiments and instruments that are sent to the moon. Instead, NASA will present them with projects they can bid on to transport there. Some of those projects will be NASA’s.

a close up of a sign: Check out these maps and images that include a drawing of the lunar body from the 1600s and the first photograph of the fabled dark side of the moon. © Chron Check out these maps and images that include a drawing of the lunar body from the 1600s and the first photograph of the fabled dark side of the moon.

Under the 10-year contracts, the companies will not get paid until they start launching projects to the lunar surface.

© Hearst Newspapers

“We have to pay for the launch costs and development, but we will recoup that over multiple missions to the moon,” Trent Martin, vice president of aerospace services for Intuitive Machines, told the Houston Chronicle Thursday. “We’ll charge customers based on their needs, such as mass, power and data.”

a close up of a tattoo: A moon map from the 1600s Polish-Lithuanian astronomer Johannes Hevelius sketched one of the first maps of the moon. This image of the heavenly body, surrounded by angels, was drawn in 1647. Hevelius has been known as the founder of lunar topography. © NASA A moon map from the 1600s Polish-Lithuanian astronomer Johannes Hevelius sketched one of the first maps of the moon. This image of the heavenly body, surrounded by angels, was drawn in 1647. Hevelius has been known as the founder of lunar topography.

FIRST NINE: NASA names astronauts to fly on commercial vehicles by Boeing, SpaceX

The moon has huge mountains and deep craters. The tallest mountains on the moon tower over Mount Everest (8,848 meters). The lowest elevation on the moon is not quite as deep as Mariana's Trench (estimated 10,924 meters) in the Pacific Ocean. Source: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/DLR/ASU © NASA The moon has huge mountains and deep craters. The tallest mountains on the moon tower over Mount Everest (8,848 meters). The lowest elevation on the moon is not quite as deep as Mariana's Trench (estimated 10,924 meters) in the Pacific Ocean. Source: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/DLR/ASU

Thursday’s announcement is the latest step by the Trump administration to bolster commercialization of space, but it came at a price.

a large building with a mountain in the background: The moon is faaaaaaar away from Earth This graphic shows how big the the moon would be if it orbited as close as the International Space Station (260 miles). If the moon was that close, we'd all be dead thanks to the amplification of the tides. Luckily, the moon remains a healthy 238,000 miles from our home planet. http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2014/05/19/close_encounter_what_if_the_moon_orbited_much_closer_to_earth.html Source: Yeti Dynamics (YouTube screengrab) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oBDZtt0vWD8 © NASA The moon is faaaaaaar away from Earth This graphic shows how big the the moon would be if it orbited as close as the International Space Station (260 miles). If the moon was that close, we'd all be dead thanks to the amplification of the tides. Luckily, the moon remains a healthy 238,000 miles from our home planet. http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2014/05/19/close_encounter_what_if_the_moon_orbited_much_closer_to_earth.html Source: Yeti Dynamics (YouTube screengrab) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oBDZtt0vWD8

The commercial landers are meant to replace a rover that NASA abruptly canceled in April after sinking more than four years and $100 million into it. The rover, known as Resource Prospector, was being built by the space agency to find water on the moon.

Earth's moon can beat up your moon. The Earth of course isn't the only Milky Way planet with its own moon. But the Earth's moon outsizes almost all the other prominent moons in the solar system, except for the behemoths that orbit Jupiter and Saturn's aptly named Titan. © NASA Earth's moon can beat up your moon. The Earth of course isn't the only Milky Way planet with its own moon. But the Earth's moon outsizes almost all the other prominent moons in the solar system, except for the behemoths that orbit Jupiter and Saturn's aptly named Titan.

Headed to the moon

Pink Floyd would love this image This is the first image to show the dark side of the moon. The more accurate name, however, is the "far side of the moon." Satellites have snapped the moon from every angle these days. But in October 1959, the Soviet Luna 3 took the first shot of the moon's backside. © NASA Pink Floyd would love this image This is the first image to show the dark side of the moon. The more accurate name, however, is the "far side of the moon." Satellites have snapped the moon from every angle these days. But in October 1959, the Soviet Luna 3 took the first shot of the moon's backside.

Intuitive Machines personnel have been working on their lunar lander, known as Nova-C, since June after securing millions of dollars in private funding, Martin said.

a close up of the moon: USA vs. USSR The USSR won the first leg of the space race to the moon. The Russian’s Luna 9 spacecraft was the first unmanned vessel to successfully land on the moon (red triangles). The U.S. touched down on the surface five times with own Surveyor units (yellow triangles). Then the Americans put the first men on the moon with the Apollo missions (green triangles). Source: NASA © NASA USA vs. USSR The USSR won the first leg of the space race to the moon. The Russian’s Luna 9 spacecraft was the first unmanned vessel to successfully land on the moon (red triangles). The U.S. touched down on the surface five times with own Surveyor units (yellow triangles). Then the Americans put the first men on the moon with the Apollo missions (green triangles). Source: NASA

“We are extremely excited to be developing the Nova-C spacecraft/lunar lander line and look forward to landing payloads on the moon,” Steve Altemus, the company’s president and chief executive, said in a statement.

A quick tour of the moon Moonwalking has been fairly short lived. Google Maps shows the path that Apollo 11 crewmembers took when they landed on the moon's surface. Vox notes the area is about the size of a baseball field. Source: Goolge Maps © NASA A quick tour of the moon Moonwalking has been fairly short lived. Google Maps shows the path that Apollo 11 crewmembers took when they landed on the moon's surface. Vox notes the area is about the size of a baseball field. Source: Goolge Maps

Nova-C is mid-range in size: Weighing 3,300 pounds and standing about 10-feet tall and seven-feet in diameter, the lander will be capable of carrying a payload of nearly 190 pounds.

We barely know the moon, on a personal level. Google Moon (it exists!) gives a closer look at the six Apollo messages that landed on the moon. Apollo 11 touched down in 1963, and humans last landed on the surface in 1972 in Apollo 17. © NASA We barely know the moon, on a personal level. Google Moon (it exists!) gives a closer look at the six Apollo messages that landed on the moon. Apollo 11 touched down in 1963, and humans last landed on the surface in 1972 in Apollo 17.

Martin would not disclose how much funding Intuitive Machines has secured or who provided it. But the company will cover both the building of the lander and the launch services until it can make up the costs through transporting payloads, he said.

a close up of a device: Waxing, waning. Apogee, pedigree. Learning about the moon will increase your vocabulary. But let's keep it simple with this map on the phases of the moon (as seen looking southward from the Northern Hemisphere). Source: Orion 9 http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Moon_phases_en.jpg © NASA Waxing, waning. Apogee, pedigree. Learning about the moon will increase your vocabulary. But let's keep it simple with this map on the phases of the moon (as seen looking southward from the Northern Hemisphere). Source: Orion 9 http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Moon_phases_en.jpg

RESOURCE PROSPECTOR: NASA's lunar rover could enable deep-space exploration

The lander should be ready to head to the moon by mid-2021, Martin added, and he expects they will launch it on a SpaceX rocket.

“What we anticipate is that NASA will issue a task order to all nine companies and say ‘We want to deliver this instrument to the moon in 2021,” he said. “Then companies will bid to deliver the payload … and then they’ll pick between the companies.”

One other Texas company was among those chosen — Firefly Aerospace in Cedar Park. The other companies chosen are Astrobotic Technology in Pennsylvania; Deep Space Systems in Colorado; Draper in Massachusetts; Lockheed Martin Space in Colorado; Masten Space Systems in California; Moon Express in Florida; and Orbit Beyond in New Jersey.

Over the course of 10 years, the nine companies will get paid a total of $2.6 billion to fly experiments and instruments to the moon. NASA wants to launch the first payloads as early as 2019 but no later than Dec. 31, 2021.

NASA officials said Thursday they will re-evaluate the companies on the list every few years and might offer opportunities to other companies.

“Today’s announcement marks tangible progress in America’s return to the moon’s surface to stay,” Bridenstine said. “The innovation of America’s aerospace companies, wedded with our big goals in science and human exploration, are going to help us achieve amazing things on the moon and feed forward to Mars.”

Unexpected decision

The cancellation of Resource Prospector earlier this year came as a shock to the scientific community, with many questioning the motives given Trump’s push to put humans back on the moon for the first time since 1972.

In looking for water on the moon, Resource Prospector would have greatly assisted NASA in its quest for deep space exploration. If there is enough water that can be collected easily, the elements could be broken down to create rocket fuel, for example, or astronaut life support.

Initially, officials said that the time and money invested in the project wasn’t in vain. The instruments — such as its ice drill, a system to search for hydrogen below the lunar surface, and a tool to quantify water extracted from the moon — would fly on future missions such as these commercial landers.

UNUSED: Despite spending $100 million, instruments on canceled lunar rover may never leave Earth's atmosphere

But NASA later acknowledged that the parts may not be reused, and the agency put out bids this fall for experiments and instruments to fly on the landers.

On Thursday, Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, skirted the question when asked about the canceled rover, saying that the agency already has some experiments in mind for the new landers.

“Some of them are resource-focused instruments,” he said at a Thursday news conference. “We’ve continued to support those instruments.”

Resource Prospector was slated to fly in 2022 or 2023. Much of the work on the rover was being done at Houston’s Johnson Space Center.

Commercialization

Increased commercialization of space has been a key talking point of Trump’s administration in his quest to return to the moon as a stepping stone for Mars.

'SAFETY REVIEW:' Workplace culture at Boeing, SpaceX being probed by NASA

For example, Trump has called for NASA to transition activity on the station to commercial companies and an end to federal funding after 2024. The push follows one started in 2014 — prior to Trump’s presidency — in which SpaceX and Boeing will become the first commercial companies to send crews to the International Space Station, eliminating the nation’s dependence on Russia to ferry astronauts to and from the orbiting laboratory.

The commercial crew program has faced numerous setbacks and delays, most recently with an investigation by NASA into the workplace culture at both Boeing and SpaceX. And many oppose Trump’s plan for the space station, saying companies likely won’t be ready to take on the fiscal responsibilities that come along with the station. Just in fiscal year 2017, NASA spent $1.45 billion on the space station — not including the costs to transport astronauts and supplies there.

BRIDENSTINE: 2024 space station funding cut off may not be possible

Even Bridenstine has said that ending federal funding for the space station after 2024 isn’t feasible.

“It sounds really difficult and it is, no doubt, really difficult, but there definitely is interest,” he previously said. But “that doesn’t mean it can be done and it doesn’t mean it can be done in seven years.”

Alex Stuckey covers NASA and the environment for the Houston Chronicle. You can reach her at alex.stuckey@chron.com or Twitter.com/alexdstuckey.

AdChoices
AdChoices

More from Houston Chronicle

Houston Chronicle
Houston Chronicle
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon