NASA has selected four companies to collect material on the moon and store it up as the space agency’s property, for a total price of $25,001. And one deal stands out: a $1 purchase that may rely on Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture.
Although this sounds like the sort of deal Amazon might have offered on Cyber Monday, neither Seattle-based Amazon nor Kent, Wash.-based Blue Origin is directly involved in the purchase. Instead, NASA accepted a $1 offer from Colorado-based Lunar Outpost, based on the expectation that the venture can set aside a sample on the moon for the space agency.
“They propose collecting the lunar material for one dollar — that’s right, one-point-zero-zero dollars — following the arrival of the Blue Moon lander to the south pole in 2023,” Phil McAllister, NASA’s director of commercial spaceflight development, told reporters today during a teleconference.
Lunar Outpost CEO Justin Cyrus told GeekWire that his company’s collection system could fly on any lander heading to the moon, and not necessarily on Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lander. But in order to have the $1 deal accepted, Lunar Outpost had to give NASA adequate assurances that it had a technically acceptable plan to collect the sample.
In response to an email from GeekWire, Blue Origin sent a statement casting some doubt on such assurances. “We don’t have a contract with Lunar Outpost,” Blue Origin said. “We would recommend that you check with NASA, as this is inaccurate.”
Lunar Outpost’s dollar sale doesn’t depend on striking a deal with Blue Origin. As Cyrus suggests, the company could make a deal instead with a different space company that’s planning to go to the moon — for example, Astrobotic or Intuitive Machines, Dynetics or SpaceX.
And even if Lunar Outpost can’t follow through, McAllister pointed out that the risk to NASA will be minimal. Only 10% of the purchase price has to be paid out initially. Another 10% would be paid when the sample collection system is launched, and the remaining 80% wouldn’t be due until the lunar samples are collected, set aside on the moon and officially transferred to NASA ownership.
That means NASA will be sending Lunar Outpost an initial payment of 10 cents. “Yes, the postage is going to be more than the check,” McAllister told reporters.
The other companies involved in NASA’s advance purchase of lunar material quoted higher prices. NASA accepted a $15,000 offer from California-based Masten Space Systems, which is already scheduled to send a lander to the moon’s south pole in 2022 under the terms of a $75.9 million NASA contract.
Offers from Tokyo-based ispace and the company’s European subsidiary were also accepted. NASA agreed to a $5,000 purchase from ispace Japan, with collection and in-place ownership transfer scheduled for 2022. A similar deal for the same amount was struck with Luxembourg-based ispace Europe for 2023.
Both of those deals depend on ispace getting lunar landers to the moon in collaboration with industry partners.
McAllister said 22 proposals were submitted in response to NASA’s solicitation, by roughly 16 different companies. He said 14 of the proposals were rejected because they weren’t judged technically or financially doable. NASA chose the four lowest-priced proposals to hit a target purchase range totaling $15,000 to $25,000. Or a dollar more.
“I think it’s kind of amazing that we can buy lunar regolith from four companies for a total of $25,001,” McAllister said.
Mike Gold, NASA’s acting associate administrator for international and interagency relations, said the regolith purchase plan is an experiment aimed at encouraging commercial activities on the moon, and supporting the development of techniques for in-situ resource utilization, or ISRU. NASA hopes that lunar material — and especially water ice on the moon — can be converted into resources including breathable oxygen and hydrogen for rocket fuel.
The companies won’t be required to bring the material back to Earth. Instead, they’ll document that up to 17 ounces of lunar material has been set aside — for example, in a receptacle on a lander or rover — and then transfer ownership of that stored material to NASA. The space agency would collect and use the material later.
NASA astronauts could conceivably pick up the samples as early as 2024, when the first crew of the Artemis moon program is due to land near the moon’s south pole.
“There’s certainly a strong possibility, particularly for the activities that are occurring in the south pole, that we will indeed be able to collect the samples for analysis, and even potentially to serve as initial ISRU demonstrations,” Gold said.
Gold said the regolith purchase experiment could set a precedent for internationally recognized property rights, not only on the moon, but also on Mars, asteroids and other celestial bodies. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty rules out any claim of sovereignty over off-Earth territory, but the United States says the treaty doesn’t rule out efforts to extract and take possession of space resources.
Update for 3:50 p.m. PT Dec. 3: We’ve fine-tuned the references to Blue Origin’s role, or lack thereof, in the calculations surrounding NASA’s $1 purchase from Lunar Outpost.