Part of the emerging strategy that NASA is employing to get astronauts back to the moon is to partner with commercial companies to provide lunar landing services. Even before the election of Donald Trump and the subsequent pivot back to the moon, the space agency had signed an agreement with a number of companies under the Lunar Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown, or CATALYST, initiative to develop lunar landing technologies. Such technologies will be used by commercial companies to provide lunar landing services for both NASA and commercial payloads. NASA has just renewed the CATALYST agreement with three companies, Moon Express, Astrobotic, and Masten Space Systems.

What is CATALYST?

CATALYST is an agreement between NASA and a number of commercial companies that do not involve the exchange of money but instead in-kind contributions. The Space Act Agreement, as it is called, allows NASA to loan out technical experts, allow access to facilities, and share technology to the companies that are developing lunar landers. In this way, NASA does not spend a lot of money and in return potentially gets a way to send science payloads to the moon without having to develop its own lunar landing craft. The original agreement was signed in 2014, during the depths of the Obama administration when talk of going to the moon was considered politically perilous.

The beginning of commercial lunar travel

The renewal of the CATALYST agreement has taken on added importance due to the Trump decision to return Americans to the moon.

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Having companies such as Moon Express, Astrobotic, and Masten prepared to take payloads to the moon will be useful in the effort to restart lunar exploration. The first attempts of private lunar landings will start in 2018 when the finalists of the Google Lunar Xprize launch their landers to the moon by the March 31, 2018, deadline. Astrobotic, which is no longer in the private moon race, is planning its first mission for 2019. Masten, which has developed a number of vertical takeoff and landing craft, has no firm date for a lunar mission at this time.

The future of lunar exploration

While NASA is likely to depend on commercial lunar landers, at least at first, other countries are developing their back to the moon technology in-house, India, which also has a Google Lunar XPrize team, will attempt to send the Chandrayaan-2 mission to the moon in early 2018. China has already landed the Chang’e 3 on the moon and is planning further missions. Russia is planning its own Luna series of landers and orbiters in the 2020s.