NASA announced on Dec. 20 that it purchased data related to innovative lunar missions from three private firms. All three contracts, valued at $500,000 each, were awarded to teams competing for the $30 million Google Lunar X PRIZE: Astrobotic Technology Inc (Pittsburgh, Pa., USA), Moon Express Inc. (Mountain View, Calif., USA) and the Rocket City Space Pioneers (Hunstville, Ala., USA). The contracts mark the first of several through NASA's $30 million Innovative Lunar Demonstrations Data project, managed by the Johnson Space Center near Houston, Texas, USA).
In exchange for these contracts, Astrobotic, Moon Express and the Rocket City Space Pioneers will demonstrate how they will address one of the top 10 technical risk areas associated with a low-cost lunar surface mission. In the coming months, each group will take an unproven but critical technical component to a high degree of technical readiness, such that it could be considered ready for spaceflight.
NASA and the teams both are likely to benefit greatly from this process. Additionally, these contracts demonstrate a critical difference between the first era of lunar exploration and "Moon 2.0," a new era that is just beginning.
"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," noted William Pomerantz, senior director of Space Prizes at the X PRIZE Foundation. "Today's contract announcements show how Google Lunar X PRIZE teams and space agencies are already forging mutually beneficial ties that will allow us to visit the Moon sooner and stay for longer."
Three other Google Lunar X PRIZE teams have previously been selected for participation in the Innovative Lunar Demonstrations Data (ILDD) program: FREDNET (Huntsville, Ala. USA), Next Giant Leap (through their team member The Charles Strake Draper Laboratory of Cambridge, Mass., USA), and Omega Envoy through its team member Earthrise Space Inc. (Orlando, Fla., USA). All six ILDD participants are able to submit proposals to claim the various contracts still available through the program, with each individual team able to earn as much as $10 million.
NASA's selection is no indication that the agency views the chosen teams as the most likely to win the Google Lunar X PRIZE; instead, NASA chose the teams by evaluating each proposal and deciding which would provide the most valuable data at the minimum level of (business) risk. Still, these awards will have a positive impact on those teams and on the competition as a whole.