With China successfully landing a robotic rover on the Moon, there’s been speculation in some circles as to whether or not a new space race between China and the United States will start soon. That’s as maybe, but if Space Race Mk II does happen, the American landing craft might be owned and operated by a private firm. Lending strength to this argument is NASA's recent announcement of its Lunar Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown (Lunar CATALYST) initiative, which aims at kickstarting private development of commercial lunar transports through partnerships with the space agency.
NASA partnerships aren’t a new idea. In fact, in recent years it’s been the agency’s preferred way of getting around shrinking budgets or lack of government interest in various programs. The most prominent of these has been Commercial Crew Program (CCP), where NASA called on private industry to come up with a replacement for the Space Shuttle to carry crews and cargo to the International Space Station (ISS). The result is the recent visits by the Dragon and Cygnus space freighters to the station, with more to follow as NASA concentrates on manned deep space missions.
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With Lunar CATALYST, NASA is soliciting proposals from potential partners to develop a reliable and cost-effective commercial robotic lunar lander for carrying cargo to the lunar surface. The idea is that these landers would be used for commercial purposes, such as mining helium-3, cryogenic manufacturing, solar power generation or spacecraft refueling, while helping out NASA and other researchers on scientific missions, such as sample returns, prospecting, and technology demonstrations.
"In recent years, lunar orbiting missions, such as NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, have revealed evidence of water and other volatiles, but to understand the extent and accessibility of these resources, we need to reach the surface and explore up close," says Jason Crusan, director of Advanced Exploration Systems at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "Commercial lunar landing capabilities could help prospect for and utilize these resources."
NASA’s contribution is one or more of what it calls a “no-funds exchanged Space Act Agreements.” That means the space agency will provide technical help, access to NASA test facilities, equipment, and software, but no money.
NASA sees the first landers from the partnership to be capable of landing payloads weighing 66 to 220 lb (30 to 100 kg) or up to 551 to 1,102 lb (250 to 500 kg) while using technologies developed by NASA’s lander programs, such as new propulsion systems and autonomous operations.
NASA says that it will hold a pre-proposal teleconference on January 27. Proposals will be due on March 17 and selections are scheduled for April.