In a new step forward, NASA announced Thursday that nine US companies are eligible to bid on $2.6 billion worth of contracts over the next 10 years to deliver services to the moon.
The companies are Astrobotic Technology, Deep Space Systems, Draper, Firefly Aerospace, Intuitive Machines, Lockheed Martin Space, Masten Space Systems, Moon Express and Orbit Beyond.
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The companies will bid to deliver science and technology payloads through NASA's Commercial Lunar Payload Services contracts. These services will launch from Earth and land on the moon, and NASA will just be "one customer of many customers," agency Administrator Jim Bridenstine said Thursday.
The providers will compete on cost and innovation so NASA can accomplish more than ever, he said. These missions could begin as early as 2019.
"Today's announcement marks tangible progress in America's return to the moon's surface to stay," Bridenstine said. "The innovation of America's aerospace companies, wedded with our big goals in science and human exploration, are going to help us achieve amazing things on the moon and feed forward to Mars."
NASA also announced that the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program will be driven by the agency's Science Mission Directorate.
"This is a response to the science community, who has for a long time decided that we needed to do science on the surface of the moon," Bridenstine said. "There is a lot of amazing science we can do on the surface of the moon that we can't do anywhere else."
Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said the moon is full of secrets and full of resources that can help supply human missions on the lunar surface, such as water. We also have the capability to explore parts of the moon never studied before, he said.
"When I was a little kid, there were humans on the surface of the moon, and right after they landed, they put up a science experiment: aluminum foil," Zurbuchen said. "That foil collected material from the sun and provided the best measurements of the sun we had for the next 25 years. What that tells us is, science and human exploration go together. If you want to learn the age of the solar system, you take samples from the moon and analyze them."
In December, President Trump signed Space Policy Directive 1, giving NASA a new direction: "The directive I am signing today will refocus America's space program on human exploration and discovery. It marks an initial step in returning American astronauts to the Moon for the first time since 1972, for long-term exploration and use. This time, we will not only plant our flag and leave our footprints -- we will establish a foundation for an eventual mission to Mars, and perhaps someday, worlds beyond."
This "Moon to Mars" program includes working with international and commercial partners to send humans back to the moon as well as landing astronauts on Mars for the first time.
In response, NASA submitted a plan to Congress: the National Space Exploration Campaign, which "calls for human and robotic exploration missions to expand the frontiers of human experience and scientific discovery of the natural phenomena of Earth, other worlds and the cosmos," the agency said.
The campaign has five strategic goals: transitioning low-Earth orbit human spaceflight, like the International Space Station, to more commercial operations; using robotic missions to discover resources on the moon; furthering surface operations on the moon; returning astronauts to the moon's surface; and demonstrating what's necessary for human missions to Mars.
Throughout the past moon missions, astronauts spent only 16 days at six sites on the surface. NASA wants to return to the moon to make scientific discoveries, find resources and establish an off-Earth presence for humans.
NASA has a plan for astronauts to orbit the moon in 2023 and return to the surface by the late 2020s using a lunar lander.
The Gateway, a lunar orbiting platform, will be the farthest humans have ever lived from Earth. Some of the elements are now under construction on Earth.
"On the Gateway, America and its partners will prepare to transit deep space, testing new technologies and systems as we build the infrastructure to support missions to the surface of the Moon and prepare for the epochal mission to Mars," the agency said. "NASA also will study the effects of the deep space environment of the Gateway, learning how living organisms react to the radiation and microgravity of a deep space environment over long periods."
And of course, the moon's surface will be a kind of test site for human missions to Mars, much like the space station has established information about long-term human spaceflight.
Bridenstine recently said he wants to have humans on Mars by the mid-2030s. Robotic exploration of Mars has been underway for years, with the InSight mission landing on the surface this week and another rover landing planned for 2020.