NASA is taking another big step to encourage private exploration of the moon.
The space agency, which has already booked robotic rides to the lunar surface on commercial landers and plans to do the same with crewed missions, now aims to pay private companies to collect moon dirt.
"The bottom line is, we're gonna buy some lunar soil for the purpose of demonstrating that it can be done," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said today (Sept. 10) during an online presentation at the Secure World Foundation's Summit for Space Sustainability.
NEWS: @NASA is buying lunar soil from a commercial provider! It’s time to establish the regulatory certainty to extract and trade space resources. More: https://t.co/B1F5bS6pEy pic.twitter.com/oWuGHnB8evSeptember 10, 2020
The agency just issued a request for proposals (RFP) to this effect, Bridenstine explained in a blog post today. NASA wants private companies, from the United States or abroad, to snag 1.8 ounces to 18 ounces (50 to 500 grams) of lunar material by 2024 and officially transfer ownership of the stuff to the space agency on the lunar surface.
NASA will pay $15,000 to $25,000 for each of these caches, with 80% of the money delivered after sample collection. Companies will get 10% upon signing a contract and 10% after launching their spacecraft, Bridenstine added.
NASA will eventually bring the lunar material down to Earth, if all goes according to plan. (The space agency already has a considerable stash of moon rocks here, of course. The Apollo astronauts brought home 842 lbs., or 382 kilograms, of lunar material between 1969 and 1972.)
The main goal of the new RFP, which you can find here, is to stimulate and normalize the extraction and sale of lunar resources, Bridenstine said. For example, participating companies may choose to collect far more than 18 ounces of material and sell the excess to non-NASA buyers.
"Right now, we're trying to prove the concept that resources can be extracted, and they can be traded," Bridenstine said in today's presentation. "And not just traded among companies or private individuals, but also among countries and across borders — private individuals in other countries."
NASA plans to continue encouraging such projects with "other iterations" of the RFP in the future, he added. All such activities, Bridenstine stressed, will be conducted in accordance with the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which is the backbone of international space law.
The use of lunar resources is critical to establishing a sustainable human presence on and around the moon, a goal NASA aims to achieve by the late 2020s via its Artemis program of crewed exploration. This lunar work will help the agency prepare for crewed trips to Mars in the 2030s, NASA officials have said.
Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.