NASA hopes to place a small crewed space station in lunar orbit by the mid-2020s, as part of its effort to return astronauts to the Moon.
One of five contenders for the now-canceled Google Lunar X Prize, Moon Express was founded in 2010 to mine lunar resources. Since then, it has focused on lowering costs for un-crewed lunar missions.
“What happened to the commercial launch industry is about to happen to the commercial lunar industry,” Moon Express CEO Bob Richards told USA Today. “I think there are very strong analogies between the two.”
Together with Moon Express, NASA hopes to land robotic spacecraft with scientific instruments on the Moon as soon as next year.
Astronauts on the new space station will not be able to land on the Moon until a lander is constructed. This could be done by other countries’ space agencies or by commercial companies, such as SpaceX and Blue Origin.
Michele Gates, director of Gateway’s power and propulsion program, said NASA is seeking input on design and construction of the space station from private spaceflight companies.
The power and propulsion program could also lead to better, high-rate communication between Earth and astronauts in deep space.
“We believe partnering with US industry for the power and propulsion element will stimulate advancements in commercial use of solar electric propulsion and also serve NASA exploration objectives. Our goal here is to gain input from industry on the draft solicitation to enable release of the final later this summer.
Several factors are driving the impetus to return to the Moon, including President Donald Trump’s stated desire to land astronauts there, the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, and the discovery of water sources on the lunar surface.
Having access to water would be a major boon to a space station, which could use it for everything from drinking water to rocket fuel.
Long-term goals for Gateway include not just exploration of the Moon but also of Mars, according to a NASA statement.
“Since the directive was issued in December to return to the Moon, the agency has been moving full-steam ahead with plans for robotic and human lunar exploration,” stated Jason Crusan, director of Advanced Exploration Systems at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC.