19659008] The emergence of a start-up space industry led by Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin has led to a new symbiosis in space. The tech titans see NASA as an important early customer as they pursue their grand long-term visions – while space agency has found ways to ride on the back of their development work rather than create the technology for its programs from scratch
Backing a network of private companies capable of creating a supply line to Moon is the first step. Astrobotic, the company planning the 2021 mission, won a $ 79.5m contract from Nasa in May, making it one of three that will carry government cargo. Most of the development money for the company, which advertises its ability to land payloads on the lunar surface for $ 1.2m per kilogram, has come in the form of advance payments from other customers. Along with carrying items such as human remains and "time capsules", Astrobotic has sold a sponsorship to DHL, which wants to be associated with the first Moon delivery
Ivanka Trump tours the Astrobotic facility in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with the space company's chief Executive John Thornton. Astrobotic won a $ 79.5m contract from Nasa in May, making it one of three that will carry government cargo to the Moon © Reuters
"It's a bootstrapped lunar transport company," said Chad Anderson, head of Space Angels, an investor in New York that led the only outside investment Astrobotic has taken. "They are going to the moon in a year and a half and they have raised only $ 2.5m in equity – it's crazy."
The new lunar economy
Nasa's efforts to include the private space industry in his plans for the Moon are about more than cost. The agency believes that this is the only way to create a sustainable lunar economy once government attention – and budgets – move elsewhere, said Laura Forczyk, a space consultant at Astralytical. "They want to create a marketplace," she said – not just for transport, but for many of the technologies needed to support future human landings and eventually turn the moon into an industrial base and stepping into the rest of the solar system .
The stark contrast between the first low-budget commercial payloads and the enormous cost of bringing humans back to the Moon points to a chasm that has opened up between the different ways Nasa promotes space exploration. , where contractors are paid and a mark-up over their costs, still eat up most of the agency's budget. NASA's largest programs – the Space Launch System, a racket capable of carrying humans to the moon, led by Boeing, and the Orion spacecraft, from Lockheed Martin – soak up $ 2bn a year, or about 10 percent of the agency's budget, and has already years behind schedule. But the political capital tied up in these programs is widely believed to make them inviolable.
Turning on fixed-price contracts for some of its activities, on the other hand, has enabled Nasa to stretch its budget further and bring stronger commercial incentives into the space program. This new style of contracting has been well-suited to areas where the technologies are better known and private companies are able to sell the same products to others, creating a commercial market where Nasa is the lead customer
It first used these in 2008, handing out work to commercial launch companies, including Elon Musk's SpaceX. NASA estimates that it would spend up to 10 times the $ 400m that SpaceX spent developing its Falcon 9. That rocket has since become a mainstay for resupplying the International Space Station and a model for future space development.
NASA is now seeking to extend this commercial approach as it turns its sights from near-earth exploration to Moon and attempts to jump-start a new phase for commercial space industry
The lunar payload program, which will Soak up little more than 1 percent of NASA's annual budget is designed to put equipment on the Moon ahead of the next expensive human mission. "The first big business on the Moon is transport and transportation."
"The first big business on the Moon is transport and transportation. delivery, "said John Thornton, chief executive of Astrobotic. "Robotic assets can really magnify what people can do, to get the bang for the buck."
The road to the moon
The biggest hope for the commercial sector lies in a later, second phase of Moon development. If there is so much frozen water at Moon's poles as much hope, it could theoretically be separated into oxygen and hydrogen to make a rocket propellant, turning Moon into a fuel stop for future missions to Mars. Mining precious metals left by asteroid strikes could become a second bonanza for the private sector
Rushing to claim these resources has brought the talk of a new space race – one of the first private companies eyeing the Moon are keen to feed. ] "It looks like the Moon is going to be a hotspot of international interest," said Bob Richards, chief executive of Moon Express, which hopes for a future Nasa transport contract after failing in the first round of bidding. "There are scarce resources on the Moon – and also scarce real estate."
Nasa has also turned to fixed-price contracts for parts of its next planned human mission. Last month, it awarded the first contract for the solar power and propulsion systems needed for a planned lunar gateway – a space station that would orbit the moon and act as a stepping-off point for trips down to the lunar surface
With the White House trying to bring forward the date for a landing, private companies are now angling for more work. Jeff Bezos's space company Blue Origin has been developing a Moon lander for three years, potentially making it the only one in a position to meet the 2024 target. Mr Musk also signaled his interest in the Moon earlier this year, turning his attention back from Mars to what could be the next big commercial opportunity.
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos unveiled his space company Blue Moon's lunar lander rocket Blue Moon during an event in Washington DC in May. The company has been developing a Moon lander for three years, potentially making it the only one in a position to meet the US government's 2024 target © Reuters
Proponents argue that Nasa should make much more use of commercial contracting. With the agency's resources stretched, it makes sense to shift all but the most risky development to the private sector, said Phil Larson, and former SpaceX executive and adviser in the Obama White House.
A wholesale shift, however, risks. Some industry executives question, for example, whether Nasa will give the private sector a free rein in its own solutions for the most important space programs, rather than fall back on its traditional habits of issuing detailed specifications and keeping tight control [19659002
"The key to sustainability is speed," said Mike Gold, vice president of civil space at Maxar – building fast enough to avoid the project cancellations that often come when the political winds change. Maxar himself lost out when a planned asteroid redirect mission, proposed by Obama White House, was canceled under the current administration
But the private companies setting their sights on this latest space race argue that, whatever the short-term volatility in government policy, and more permanent human presence on the Moon will be an inescapable step in the future of human space exploration
"It's a place to live and work off-world," said Ms Forczyk. 19659034] Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, who through Elon Musk's SpaceX is scheduled to be the first private passenger on a trip around the Moon © AP
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