Sen—Lunar exploration has always been exclusively a matter for nation states, but it is now within the reach of private enterprise and a growing number of companies are looking to explore the Moon in the next few years.
Although it's four decades since the last astronaut walked on the Moon in 1972, NASA still plan to return. There is no rallying call from the President this time, but NASA envisage manned missions to the Moon when publicising the capabilities of their next rocket and spacecraft, Orion. Other nations have lunar ambition, notably China. The Moon falls within China's space strategy for the next few years, as announced by the Chinese government in December 2011.
This time NASA is not planning to do it all on its own. As with spaceflight, NASA is again partnering with private enterprise for the second generation of lunar exploration, referred to as Moon 2.0.
The first lunar landings in the 1960s and 1970s represented a race between nation states. The new race is among private companies that are developing new robotic spacecraft to explore the Moon. NASA wishes to learn from these companies to assist with its own plans for future exploration missions - not just to the Moon, but to asteroids and other solar system destinations.
NASA's Innovative Lunar Demonstrations Data (ILDD) program, managed by the Lunar Lander project office at the Johnson Space Center, was set up in 2010 and announced a series of contracts in October 2010. The ILDD Program enables the space agency to buy data from commercial operations that are developing lunar lander technologies.
In October 2010 NASA announced it had awarded six companies contracts to purchase data under its ILDD program. NASA's interest is in gathering information on the new technologies being developed, such as system testing and integration, launch, in-space manoeuvers, braking burns and lunar landing. NASA plans to use such data to develop future lander systems necessary to execute human and robotic missions to the moon, near-Earth asteroids or other solar system destinations.
In December 2010 NASA's ILDD office announced it had agreed to purchase data from three companies at $0.5m each. The contracts were awarded to Moon Express, Astrobotic Technology and Dynetics. Under the terms of the contracts, each company will have to prove a critical technical component of a lunar lander is ready for spaceflight. All three companies are involved with teams competing for the Google Lunar X PRIZE.
"NASA is going to be a strong a leader in Moon 2.0, just as it was in the famous Moon race of the 1960s. But this time, NASA will show leadership by partnering with international partners and especially with commercial enterprises, in addition to conducting its own missions,” commented William Pomerantz, the Senior Director of Space Prizes at the X PRIZE Foundation.
On April 23, 2012, Moon Express announced it had delivered a mission design package to NASA under the ILDD, providing NASA with details of its lunar robotic missions and plans to mine the Moon for precious metals and water.
Moon Express, one of the companies awarded an ILDD contract to supply data to NASA, has also signed a Reimbursable Space Act Agreement with NASA for the development of the Moon Express lunar lander. Whilst the company will earn revenue from its ILDD agreement, under the Space Act Agreement Moon Express can purchase technical assistance and technology from NASA.
The race to the Moon by private companies is epitomised by the Google Lunar X PRIZE (GLXP). The GLXP is the largest incentive prize in history - a reflection of the vast technological and financial challenges of landing a spacecraft on the Moon. First prize of $20 million will be awarded to the first company to land a robotic rover on the Moon, travel 500 metres and transmit video, images and data back to Earth.
There are 25 teams left competing for the $30m prize pot, following the acqusition of one of the teams, Next Giant Leap, by another, Moon Express, in May 2012.
The runner-up gets $5 million and the remaining $5m prize money will be made available to teams that go beyond the basic requirements – such as travelling five kilometres (three miles), capturing images of relics of the Apollo programme, verifying the presence of water, or surviving a lunar night. But there is a time limit. Whoever makes it to the Moon must do so by the end of 2015 when the prize fund expires.