Artist’s impression of Intuitive Machines lunar lander,
on the Moon
Capitalism in space: Intuitive Machines announced yesterday that it has awarded SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket the launch contract for its third unmanned lunar lander, making SpaceX its carrier for all three.
The key quote however from the article is this:
Intuitive Machines’ first two lander missions are carrying out task orders for NASA awarded under its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. However, IM-3 is not linked to any CLPS missions. Marshall said that the mission “has an open manifest for commercial and civil customers.”
In other words, this third launch is being planned as an entirely private lunar robotic mission. Intuitive Machines is essentially announcing that it will launch the lander and has room for purchase for anyone who wants to send a payload to the Moon. This opportunity is perfect for the many universities that have programs teaching students how to build science payloads and satellites. For relatively little, a school can offer its students the chance to fly something to the lunar surface. Not only will it teach them how to build cutting edge engineering, it will allow those students to do cutting edge exploration.
This is the whole concept behind the recommendations I put forth in my 2016 policy paper, Capitalism in Space. If the government will simply buy what it needs from the private sector, and let that sector build and own what it builds, that sector will construct things so that their products can be sold to others, and thus expand the market.
Since around 2018 NASA and the federal government has apparently embraced those recommendations, and we are about to see that policy bear fruit in unmanned lunar exploration. Below is a list of all planned robotic lander missions to the Moon, all scheduled for the next four years:
That’s nine lander/rovers, and all arriving on the Moon hopefully before 2024. While the majority are carrying government payloads, all also include private payloads. The private market for commercial planetary exploration is certainly heating up.
Furthermore, this list leaves out NASA’s manned lunar program, which is also shifting more and more to this commercial model.
The list above also reinforces what I have noted previously: SpaceX is garnering more than 90% of the launch market for these privately built lunar landers. It is doing so because its rockets are the cheapest available at this time, and are also most likely to launch on time with few problems.
Other rocket companies, such as Blue Origin, ULA, and Northrop Grumman, have an opportunity here, if they simply will start to compete. Their failure to do so, however, has left almost the entire market to SpaceX.
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