NASA Extends Lunar CATALYST Agreements with Astrobotic, Masten & Moon Express

WASHINGTON, DC (NASA PR) — NASA will continue its partnerships with three U.S. companies that are advancing technologies to deliver cargo payloads to the lunar surface. The partners—Astrobotic Technology, Inc., of Pittsburgh, Masten Space Systems of Mojave, California, and Moon Express of Cape Canaveral, Florida—began work in 2014 under NASA’s Lunar Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown (Lunar CATALYST) initiative. The original three-year agreements were amended to extend the work for another two years.

“We expect that the demand for lunar cargo delivery services will increase in the next decade, and we want to support U.S. industry efforts to meet that demand,” said Jason Crusan, director of NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems in Washington. “All three partners have shown remarkable growth in the past three years, so we’re optimistic that they could begin delivering small payloads to the Moon as early as next year.”

Based on the significant progress each partner has made, NASA is extending and updating the no-funds-exchanged Space Act Agreements with the goal of seeing the first commercial cargo deliveries to the Moon over the next few years. The CATALYST partners, working closely with NASA engineers, have advanced their lander and mission designs through end-to-end mission simulations and subsystems tests, as well as engine hot-fire tests and tethered flight demonstrations. NASA technologies have been incorporated into the partner spacecraft designs in some cases, such as the Core Flight System software, which Astrobotic, Masten, and Moon Express all have adopted as the backbone framework for their flight software.

Under the Lunar CATALYST agreements, the companies fund or fund-raise all of their own lander development, while NASA loans equipment and provides the partners with technical expertise and access to test facilities. The updated agreements include new milestones, which NASA and the partners use to track progress toward fielding robotic landers for flights to the Moon.

Robotic missions have confirmed the presence of resources on and below the surface of the Moon, a revelation that has begun to change the way some deep space missions are designed. NASA and other space agencies have shown a global interest with plans to launch almost two dozen robotic missions in the next decade, and commercial lunar transportation capabilities can extend these efforts to continue advancing our knowledge of the Moon and its potential resources. To gauge private-sector interest, NASA issued Requests for Information over the past year seeking ideas for instruments, experiments, or payloads that could be deployed to the lunar surface, as well as commercial payload delivery capabilities for lunar surface missions.

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    If the agreements are unfunded I wonder what NASA intends to spend the Lunar CATALYST budget on?

  • Aerospike

    No funds are exchanged in those contracts/agreements, but NASA still has to pay all the employees that work on those projects to provide services and support “for free” to those three companies.

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    I hope the prototype landers will be tested in vacuum chambers before being sent to the Moon. The contractors are small companies so they may not have the necessary equipment.

  • duheagle

    But NASA does have the equipment. And the NASA centers where said equipment is located are always looking for more use for their facilities to justify their continued existence. Providing said facilities for use by the NewSpace lunar lander makers is probably most of what these “unfunded” Space Act Agreements are about. Places like NASA Plum Brook are major fans of NewSpace because new companies use their facilities more than the legacy majors do. Sometimes they even pay a bit for doing so.

  • duheagle

    Those vacuum chambers you were worried about.

  • Jimmy S. Overly

    The updated Space Act Agreements with each party are online. In Moon Express’s SAA, it doesn’t look like anything happened in 2016 or 2017, though they have a vacuum engine test milestone due in December. Lots has to come together for a 2018 launch.

    There’s a “Manufacturing Readiness Review (MRR)” also due in December 2017. Can somebody explain an MRR to me? It kind of sounds like “permission” to build the MX-1 vehicle, meaning Moon Express doesn’t have “permission” to build the MX-1 vehicle until December 2017?

  • Jimmy S. Overly

    For Moon Express, “Expedition One Spacecraft Thermal Vacuum Tests” is Milestone 12 and is due February 2018.

  • Aerospike

    Aha, so the chances of Moon Express winning the GLXP are officially zero as of now.
    (Unless that stupid price gets extended once again).

  • Jimmy & all, happy to explain what I can, no secrets or mysteries intended…. first thing to note is that the NASA SAA milestones are not “due dates”, like you would expect in a contracted program – they are what we believe to be realistic projections of a series of events over time, based on what we know today, that we’ve determined collaboratively with NASA. We are not a “NASA contractor”, nor are we “under contract” from NASA to perform or deliver anything specifically, except to work together with NASA in good faith and the smart application of NASA support in the spirit of the partnership program to further the development of U.S. based lunar lander technologies.

    The Lunar CATALYST SAA is a no-exchange of funds agreement, where NASA expends funds internally when support is provided in kind to the CATALYST partners. NASA’s in-kind PPP is beneficial to both party’s, but everything we do and all our developments are dependent on our own capital raised through private investments. There is no such thing as NASA’s “permission” in this relationship, all our decisions are internal.

    Re MRR: We also use our own terminologies and definitions of technical milestones… e.g. there is no industry standard of a “Manufacturing Readiness Review (MRR)”: that’s our own corporate determination and terminology. It’s an internal gating review that determines if we’re confident enough in a design of a part or system to proceed to manufacturing, which could be internal or external.

    Hope that is helpful clarification.

  • Andrew, this is a great example of how NASA’s partnership is providing opportunities to smaller companies to access capital intensive facilities and equipment. e.g. vacuum chambers that can support a full burn rocket engine test are extremely expensive, and there are not many of them in the U.S. NASA is providing Moon Express very helpful access to test chambers.

  • Jimmy S. Overly

    Thank you, Bob!

  • Jimmy S. Overly

    March 31st will be here before we know it :-/

  • Aerospike

    Bob, thank you for taking the time to come here and answer questions! I highly appreciate your input regarding those things!

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    Depending on who you are talking to time in the vacuum chamber can be described as either NASA helping a small company or performing a tough inspection on a new product from a supplier. It is of course both.

  • Jimmy, Aerospike, all… I think the GLXP deserves appreciation and applause, no matter what the ultimate outcome. For anyone interested, my personal take is here: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/applauding-google-lunar-xprize-robert-bob-richards/

  • Jimmy S. Overly

    Thank you, Bob – I genuinely appreciate your comments here, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

  • duheagle

    Yes. We fans/spectators are always tickled when a player stops by the sidelines for a little chat. 🙂

  • I wish I had more time to chime in on questions…, I should prob do an AMA sometime if there is interest… prob wold be most interesting after we have some successful hot fires we can talk about…