NASA has made the next step toward establishing partnerships with commercial enterprises to restart the exploration of the Earth’s moon. The Space agency’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD) has put out a request for information for small payloads that could be placed on commercial space probes that could go to the moon as early as the 2017-2020 timeframe. Organizations including corporations, universities, non-profit groups, NASA centers such as JPL, and other agencies of the United States government could propose such payloads.

When NASA receives a list of proposed payloads, the next step would be to select a number for funding, depending on availability of financing.

The groups that are awarded space agency funding would then fly them on available commercial spacecraft headed to the moon. A number of private companies, including Moon Express and Astrobotics, are working on commercial lunar missions. The Google Lunar X Prize was established to jump start private lunar exploration, with a number of groups including Moon Express and an Israeli group, SpaceIl, slated for attempts in 2017.

Lunar exploration has been on the backburner at NASA ever since President Barack Obama canceled the Constellation program and specifically eschewed interest in returning human explorers to the lunar surface. NASA has been working with a number of private firms to develop lunar landers under an unfunded Space Act arrangement as part of a program called Lunar CATALYST.

Speculation abounds that whoever is elected president, the space agency is likely to be tasked with taking a renewed interest in the moon.

The NASA initiative to fund payloads for private lunar missions may, in due course, lead for NASA directly financing such missions. The model for such an arrangement would be COTS which has the space agency paying for cargo flights to the International Space Station and Commercial Crew that will have NASA sending astronauts to the ISS on private spacecraft.

Could the first astronauts to return to the moon fly on commercial spacecraft? NASA is already developing two elements of a lunar return, the deep space Orion spacecraft and the heavy lift Space Launch System. The space agency could partner with one or more commercial companies to develop lunar landers and even lunar surface habitats.

The first astronauts went to the moon “in peace for all mankind.” The next astronauts may be going to Earth’s nearest neighbor for profit as well as the glory.

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