When NASA first landed astronauts on the Moon several decades ago, it was an entirely government-driving affair. The U.S. was in the midst of a space race with rivals overseas, and coming up short was simply not an option. These days, things are a lot different for NASA, and cooperation with other countries as well as has been vital.
Now, as NASA prepares to revisit the Moon within the next decade, the space agency is reaching out to the private sector in the hopes of streamlining the development of the technologies that will allow astronauts to make the journey.
In a new blog post, NASA welcomes companies to participate in its search for reusable systems that will reliably deliver astronauts to the lunar surface and get them home safely. The agency wants to build a sustainable system “for roundtrip journeys to and from the surface of the Moon,” including what it calls the Gateway.
The Gateway will be a space station positioned in orbit around the Moon that will serve as a jumping-off point for missions to and from the surface. The Gateway will be significantly smaller than the International Space Station but will still allow crew to remain on board for up to three months at a time.
With the Gateway up and running NASA envisions travel to the Moon becoming much easier, with astronauts harvesting material from the lunar surface to make rocket fuel:
Using the Gateway to land astronauts on the Moon allows the first building blocks for fully reusable lunar landers. Initially NASA expects two of the lander elements to be reusable and refueled by cargo ships carrying fuel from Earth to the Gateway. The agency is also working on technologies to make rocket propellants using water ice and regolith from the Moon. Once the ability to harness resources from the Moon for propellant becomes viable, NASA plans to refuel these elements with the Moon’s own resources. This process, known as in-situ resource utilization or ISRU, will make the third element also refuelable and reusable.
This is all obviously still in an early conceptual stage, but NASA wants to get the cogs turning as soon as possible. Just as SpaceX has become a major NASA partner in short order, this new call out for cooperation with private industry could bring some new faces into the NASA fold and give the agency the boost it needs to send man to the Moon once more.