NASA announces the nine companies that will help us go back to the moon

We’re going to the moon! As a part of the “Moon to Mars” initiative, nine United States companies have been selected to partner with NASA in a race to get humans deeper into space. Once we’ve conquered the moon, our next stop on our galactic tour is Mars, which has so far only been explored by our robots.

The nine partners are mostly small aerospace companies, several of which have never sent anything into space before. NASA did not go into detail over how it chose these companies, but we do know that the chosen nine were not the only contenders for the partnership. Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin had displayed interest in the program when it was first announced, but both companies are notably not on the roster. The nine lucky companies, which were announced in a press release on Thursday, are Astrobotic Technology Inc., Deep Space Systems, Draper, Firefly Aerospace Inc., Intuitive Machines LLC, Lockheed Martin Space, Masten Space Systems Inc., Moon Express, and Orbit Beyond.

These companies will compete to send payloads up to the moon through NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services contracts. The idea behind this is simple: Whenever NASA wants to send something to the moon’s surface, it will select one of the nine companies to launch it using their own carriers. By hiring these individual companies, NASA will be able to focus more time and resources on its ultimate goal: Getting onto Mars.

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The moon project is just one part of the larger “Moon to Mars” program, which will treat the moon’s surface as a sort of test site to prepare for a Mars landing. This prepare will include analysis of the moon’s resources and the building of a station orbiting the moon, called The Gateway, where astronauts and spacecraft can hang out and have a fun time while travelling to and from the moon.

NASA expects this program to last for about ten years, with plans to start passing out these contracts in early 2019. The goal is to have humans standing on the moon again by the late 2020s, but NASA is looking even farther beyond that. The agency wants to start the Mars stage as soon as possible, and hopes to have astronauts on the red planet by the mid 2030s. While this may seem like forever and a day away, that’s only  5-10 years after NASA plans to put a man on the moon again for the first time in over 40 years.

But NASA doesn’t want to be the only one getting involved with these private companies. “We want to be first customers, not only customers,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s head of the science mission directorate. The hope is that this partnership will result in development among commercial aerospace companies so these types of collaboration can continue, cutting the individual costs of sending humans into space.

So there’s hope for Elon and Jeff yet.

Image Credit: Bill Ingalls/NASA

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