A lobby card for the 1950 film, “Destination Moon.”
Back in April 2013, NASA and Bigelow Aerospace announced an unfunded Space Act Agreement that allowed Bigelow to explore the possibility of commercial ventures beyond Earth orbit.
An unfunded Space Act Agreement is essentially a contractual relationship between NASA and a private company in which no money changes hands. NASA offers guidance and expertise, but does not pay the company for services rendered.
In late May, NASA Associate Administrator William Gerstenmaier and Bigelow founder Bob Bigelow held a joint teleconference to discuss the agreement. The essential idea was to take the next logical step beyond today's successful commercial cargo and crew programs.
Click the arrow to listen to the May 23, 2013 teleconference. (Audio only.)
During that event, Gerstenmaier said:
“For us in NASA, we typically do a lot of design reference mission analysis. We do a lot of concept work. We do a lot of things, and then we typically ask industry how they can participate or be part of that activity.
“We thought that this time, instead of doing it the typical way, we would kind of turn that around a little bit. We would ask the industry first through this Space Act Agreement what they are interested in; (where) they see interest in doing exploration throughout the solar system; where they see human presence that makes sense; where they see potential commercial markets.”
As more companies invest in hardware and missions, “isn’t there an opportunity in there for NASA to benefit, so that NASA isn’t having to pay the perpetual heavy burden of research and development costs?” said Bigelow’s founder, Robert Bigelow.
Bigelow spoke to roughly 20 companies and international space agencies to produce the first of two reports promised to NASA under an unfunded Space Act Agreement signed in March ...
Its focus was on near-term opportunities in low Earth orbit, on the moon or at gravitationally stable points around the moon rather than on deeper-space missions that will take longer and cost more.
Bigelow said he solicited input under the understanding that Bigelow Aerospace would act as a general contractor, demanding services for fixed prices on strict timelines.
Late today, NASA announced what could be the result of this unique private enterprise.
The NASA press release announced the creation of the Lunar CATALYST initiative.
To quote from the press release:
NASA's new Lunar Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown (Lunar CATALYST) initiative calls for proposals from the U.S. private sector that would lead to one or more no-funds exchanged Space Act Agreements (SAA). NASA’s contribution to a partnership would be on an unfunded basis and could include the technical expertise of NASA staff, access to NASA center test facilities, equipment loans, or software for lander development and testing.
“As NASA pursues an ambitious plan for humans to explore an asteroid and Mars, U.S. industry will create opportunities for NASA to advance new technologies on the moon,” said Greg Williams, NASA's deputy associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. “Our strategic investments in the innovations of our commercial partners have brought about successful commercial resupply of the International Space Station, to be followed in the coming years by commercial crew. Lunar CATALYST will help us advance our goals to reach farther destinations.”
The moon has scientific value and the potential to yield resources, such as water and oxygen, in relatively close proximity to Earth to help sustain deep space exploration. Commercial lunar transportation capabilities could support science and exploration objectives, such as sample returns, geophysical network deployment, resource prospecting, and technology demonstrations. These services would require the ability to land small (66 to 220 pound, or 30 to 100 kilogram) and medium (551 to 1,102 pound, or 250 to 500 kg) class payloads at various lunar sites.
NASA also unveiled the initiative's web site at www.nasa.gov/lunarcatalyst/.
According to the web site, this is the time line for the program:
- Jan. 16: Announcement released
- Jan. 27: Pre-proposal teleconference
- Feb. 10: Proposed NASA Contributions forms due (4 p.m. EST) by email
- Feb. 28: NASA feedback on Proposed Contributions form submissions
- March 17: Proposals due (4 p.m. EDT) by email
In 1950, film producer George Pal released a science fiction film called Destination Moon. Its premise was that after a government rocket program fails and loses its funding, a group of private entrepreneurs and visionaries decide to create their own Moon program.
I think George Pal would find something quite familiar in today's announcement.
The white elephant in the room, of course, is the Congress-mandated Space Launch System. It has no missions or destinations, yet Congress continues to mandate that NASA develop the vehicle. Many members of Congress insist that NASA use SLS for an Apollo redux, but Congress refuses to fund such a project, much less a lunar lander to take the crew to the surface and return them.
This commercial lunar lander program seems aimed at prodding the private sector into developing such a technology.
The zealous Congressional protectors of SLS pork may suspect that Lunar CATALYST is a backdoor means of supporting a private sector substitute. They're probably right, and I find it a wee bit coincidental that this was announced a couple days after Congress passed NASA's Fiscal Year 2014 budget — avoiding any Congressional retaliation for now.
But if I were an executive at The Golden Spike Company, I'd be very happy today.
Last month, Golden Spike announced a partnership with Honeybee Robotics to design unmanned lunar rovers.
Working with technical staff at Golden Spike, Honeybee engineers will conduct trade studies for the design of configurable robotic rovers that can collect and store scientific samples from the Moon’s surface in support of Golden Spike’s expeditions. The results of the study will be complete by mid-2014.
Bob Bigelow has also long envisioned his expandable habitats ensconced on the lunar surface.
A Bigelow Aerospace model of their expandable habitats on the surface of the Moon. Image source: Bigelow Aerospace via DailyTech.com.
Once the Bigelow technology is tested and proven in low Earth orbit, Bigelow would like to see them in orbit around the Moon as way stations, and then develop the technology to land them on the Moon as a permanent base of operations.
I suspect Elon Musk will welcome today's announcement as well, because his Falcon Heavy could be the launch vehicle for Golden Spike and Bigelow. SpaceX is currently negotiating with NASA to lease Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center, originally built in the 1960s for the Saturn V Moon rocket. It seems logical that a Falcon Heavy would use 39A as the launch pad for commercial lunar missions, either as part of Lunar CATALYST or independently with these commercial companies.
In any case, I will watch to see if Congress calls a hearing to ask NASA to explain Lunar CATALYST, demanding assurances that the program will not intrude on the porkfest that is Space Launch System.