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NASA cautiously re-approaches manned lunar exploration

NASA took a heavily qualified, oblique, indirect step on Tuesday, toward contracting with private companies to send scientific payloads to the surface of the Moon, beginning as early as next year. The agency put out a Request For Information for a “Small Lunar Surface Payload” program, and the request acknowledges the ability of US commercial outfits to develop lunar probes or landers. NASA hasn’t committed to funding the projects yet, and in fact they’re pretty emphatic about “cost-sharing.” But this may be a signal the agency is interested in a wider program to explore the Moon.

The Request For Information reads, in part:

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD) is seeking information on the availability of small payloads that could be delivered to the Moon as early as the 2017-2020 timeframe using U.S. commercial lunar cargo transportation service providers. Multiple U.S. companies are developing robotic lunar landing capabilities and have expressed plans to provide commercial cargo delivery services to the Moon in the near future. Information on lunar payloads that could be launched as early as 2017 would be valuable to NASA as it works to understand the potential role of the Moon in future exploration activities.

It’s too early to crow “We’re goin’ back to the moon!” just yet, but this is clearly aimed in the direction of more manned lunar exploration.

One clue to NASA’s motive is the person they chose to deliver the announcement. John Guidi is the deputy director of their advanced exploration systems division, which is itself a part of NASA’s human spaceflight division. “NASA is asking for information about small instruments that could be placed on small lunar landers,” said Guidi, “and our interest is that we want to address our strategic knowledge gaps.”

NASA’s strategic knowledge gaps about the moon can be filled with basic research about the availability of key resources on the lunar surface, including water ice. Also important is a good sense of how the lunar environment will affect humans who spend any significant time on the moon.

In response to NASA’s overture toward private enterprise, one interested outfit — a lunar exploration project called Moon Express — responded publicly with its own proposal. “The Moon Express Lunar Scout Program is designed to expand our partnership with NASA and support the lunar science community with new, low-cost lunar orbiter and surface missions,” the company founder and chief executive, Bob Richards, told Ars Technica. “Our goal is to collapse the cost of access to the Moon to enable a new era of lunar exploration and development for students, scientists and commercial interests.”

Moon Express is working with the US government to carry out commercial operations on the moon. Basically, they want to mine it. The site quotes Richards, in all caps because all caps means it’s content, as saying that “WATER IS THE OIL OF THE SOLAR SYSTEM, AND THE MOON HAS BECOME A GAS STATION IN THE SKY.”

It’s not exactly a Kickstarter or a bake sale, but NASA is sort of piggybacking on private enterprise, as if the private sector were an icebreaker ship headed for the Northwest Passage to Mars.

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