According to Space News, NASA has issued a Request For Information concerning possible inclusion of Space Agency payloads on commercial missions to the Martian surface. The space agency has already issued a similar RFI for commercial flights to the moon.

The two RFIs reflect a growing realization on the part of NASA that future space exploration is likely to be a collaboration between the space agency and the Private Sector. For robotic missions that means that commercial companies are likely to buy space for its own instruments on NASA missions and the space agency will do the same on commercial probes.

For the moon, companies such as Moon Express and Astrobotic are already planning missions to the lunar surface to start mining operations and for other business purposes. NASA would be one customer by adding instruments on these private voyages. Both companies have already proposed financial incentives for private groups that intend to offer space agency-sponsored payloads.

As a practical matter, the first private mission to the Martian surface is likely to be the Red Dragon, originally scheduled for 2018 but recently pushed back to the 2020 launch window. A Dutch company called Mars One has been touting its own Mars lander as a precursor for its Mars colony scheme, but the proposal has been stymied by lack of money.

The shape of NASA/commercial space exploration is likely to deepen once astronauts start venturing to the moon, Mars, and beyond. While NASA is building the Orion spacecraft and the Space Launch System, the private sector could provide such hardware as landers and surface habitats. The model for such an approach would be the commercial crew program in which NASA financed two commercially operated spacecraft, the SpaceX Dragon, and the Boeing Starliner, to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

Going beyond expeditions, the first lunar base may well be on the model of the European concept of a “moon village” that would consist of habitats from various national space agencies but also private companies, sharing resources and becoming the first community on another world.