During a hearing before Sen. Ted Cruz’s committee that oversees NASA, the concept of a deep space COTS program came up. The original COTS, started under President George W. Bush, created commercial cargo transports to the International Space Station operated by SpaceX and Orbital Space Systems. Its successor, the Commercial Crew program, is developing crewed spacecraft to be run by SpaceX and Boeing. But what would a #Deep Space version of COTS look like?

What would be the goal of a deep space COTS?

By a happy chance, two elements of a deep space architecture are already in development. NASA is building the Orion-Space Launch System to take people back to the moon and on to Mars.

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SpaceX has indicated that its Falcon Heavy will be able to send a version of the Dragon spacecraft to cis-lunar space and something called the #Red Dragon to the surface of Mars. Blue Origin has suggested that its upcoming New Glenn launcher would have lunar capabilities. The New Armstrong, which will perhaps be rolled out later, would be even more capable.

So, the first thing that will be needed that a deep space version of COTS would address is some way to land on a surface of a celestial body, say the moon. Indeed, since Vice President Mike Pence has already indicated that the moon is back on NASA’s agenda, the first vehicle that a deep space COTS program would be designed to create would be a lunar lander, or maybe a family of lunar landers.

Landing on the moon commercially

The first step, following the COTS model, would be to hold a round one competition of designs for lunar landers.

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Here too NASA is fortunate in that a number of companies have worked with concepts of vertical takeoff and landing vehicles. SpaceX would doubtless respond with a version of the Red Dragon (Lunar Dragon?) Blue Origin has already offered its services with a concept of lunar landers called Blue Moon. Other companies such as Moon Express and Astrobotic have lunar landers already in the works. No doubt some of the old line aerospace companies will want to weigh in with their ideas.

After several rounds, a crewed lunar lander and a cargo lunar lander would be chosen for funding. The new vehicles would be developed, tested, and then put into service to a return to the moon program. Ideally, the first footsteps would occur in 2002, 50 years after the flight of Apollo 17, though many would consider that too ambitious. In any case, the slogan for the return to the moon might be, “One small step for NASA, one giant leap for commercial space.”