NASA picks three commercial companies to build manned lunar rovers

Capitalism in space: NASA yesterday announced that it has picked three commercial companies, Astrolab, Intuitive Machines, and Lunar Outpost, to begin feasibility design work on its new manned lunar rovers, dubbed a Lunar Terrain Vehicle (LTV), for its planned Artemis missions to the Moon.

NASA will acquire the LTV as a service from industry. The indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity, milestone-based Lunar Terrain Vehicle Services contract with firm-fixed-price task orders has a combined maximum potential value of $4.6 billion for all awards.

The three companies are actually each a partnership of several American companies, as follows:

  • Astrolab is building its FLEX rover in partnership with Axiom Space, Inc., and Odyssey Space. Its contract is worth up to $1.9 billion.
  • Intuitive Machines is building its RACER rover in partership with AVL, Boeing, Michelin, and Northrop Grumman. This initial award is worth $30 million, but future buys from NASA could exceed $1 billion.
  • Lunar Outpost is building its Lunar Dawn rover in partnership with Lockheed Martin, General Motors, Goodyear, and MDA Space.

All three lead companies are essentially startups that have partnered with older established players, a likely requirement imposed by NASA to give their effort some experienced help. Though this system of dividing up the work between all the players follows the old scheme used by NASA and the established big space companies for decades in order to guarantee every company gets steady work and a continuing cash flow from the government, the difference is that the product will be designed, built, and owned by each partnership, not NASA, allowing each to sell that product to others outside the agency.

If this goes as planned, eventually the government money will become somewhat irrelevant, once a real commercial industry starts functioning in space and on the Moon. That’s what happened in the airplane industry in the 1920s to the 1950s.

Lunar rover startup signs deal to send rover to the Moon using Starship

The lunar rover startup Astrolab has signed a deal with SpaceX to send its FLEX rover to the Moon’s south pole region using a lunar lander version of Starship.

Jaret Matthews, founder and chief executive of Astrolab, said in an interview that the mission, which will include 1,000 kilograms of customer payloads, will be the first flight of the FLEX rover. It will be a rideshare payload on a Starship mission landing somewhere in the south polar region of the moon.

“Because our rover can traverse up to a couple thousand kilometers in a given year, we’re less sensitive to exactly where we land,” he said. “’It is definitely optimized for the south polar region because that’s fundamentally where we think that the bulk of the activity is going to be.”

The company unveiled a full scale prototype of its rover one year ago, when it made it clear it intended to compete for the rover contract in NASA’s Artemis program, competing against several big established players. Since then there has been little news. The story today sadly reeks to me of a lot of blarney. For example, the company has only 20 employees. Astrolab might have signed this deal, but I suspect it is a very tentative deal, easily canceled by either party at no cost.

Startup Astrolab unveils its manned lunar rover design

Capitalism in space: A small startup company, Astrolab, yesterday unveiled its concept for a manned lunar rover, designed for NASA’s Artemis program.

The company has already built a full scale prototype, which it tested in Death Valley. It also intends to try to win NASA’s contract for building it, with bidding expected to begin in only a few months.

Astrolab will likely have major competition for the LTV contract. Lockheed Martin announced in May 2021 a partnership with General Motors to design lunar rovers but said at the time their concept was still in the early stages. Northrop Grumman announced in November it was working with several companies on a lunar rover design but also provided few technical details.

By contrast, Astrolab, based in Hawthorne, California, is a 15-person company founded two years ago after [Jaret Matthews, the founder of the company,] left SpaceX.

In a rational world, Astrolab’s small size and newness would not matter, if its design was best. In the strange world of our modern federal government, however, the political clout of big companies like General Motors and Northrop Grumman could easily be more important, even if their designs are mediocre and cost much more. Their designs might not be inferior, but their clout cannot be ignored. It will make Astrolab’s success far more difficult, requiring this startup to offer something much more superior to have a chance of winning.

At the same time, the competition might very well force the older big space companies to up their game, which will be all to the good, for everyone.