As America, hopefully, this time for real, prepares for a return to the moon, the one problem facing the effort is actually landing on the moon. NASA and its associated contractors are developing two parts of the back to the moon infrastructure, the Orion spacecraft and the heavy-lift Space Launch System. In addition, commercial companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin are developing their own heavy lift rockets, the Falcon Heavy and the New Glenn respectively.

According to Space News, four companies are developing lunar landers that should be ready to start taking payloads to the moon’s surface in the next four years.

The model that seems to be developing is similar to the Commercial Orbital Transportation System and the Commercial Crew programs. NASA would contract out to commercial companies for lunar landing services. However, that model may run into some resistance in Congress.

The companies that may take us back to the moon

Currently, four private companies, Moon Express, Astrobotic, Masten Space System, and Blue Moon (a subsidiary of Blue Origin) have lunar landing vehicles in various stages of development. The first three companies, which are working under NASA’s Lunar CATALYST program, are building moon landing craft for launch in the next three years. Blue Moon has expressed interest in working with NASA to develop back to the moon services.

The preferred model is that NASA contract with private companies to deliver payloads such as scientific instruments, cargo, and ultimately astronauts to the moon. The same arrangement is being implemented to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station. The idea is that while the space agency would be a core customer, the new moon delivery companies would also take private payloads to the lunar surface.

A new space commercial industry would be created, and NASA and her international and commercial partners would get access to the moon, cheaper, than if they tried to build a lunar lander in-house under traditional cost-plus methods.

Congress may push back

However, the commercial model to go back to the moon may be a tough sell for Congress, according to Tom Culligan, a former House staffer.

The legislative body had been resistant to the commercial crew program when President Obama proposed it in 2010 and for years had underfunded it. The idea of putting commercial companies in the Critical Path for a return to the moon may meet similar resistance.

On the other hand, Congress was still dealing with outrage over the then president’s cancellation of the Constellation program. Seven years later the Commercial Crew program has achieved widespread acceptance. Applying the same model for lunar landers would not be too great a stretch.