LAS VEGAS -- Three of NASA’s top officials arrived at the Consumer Electronics Show  in Las Vegas this week to give attendees a message: We’re heading back to the Moon in 2024 – and we’ll need help from the commercial sector to do it.

In a presentation at CES, Kira Blackwell, Jeff DeWit, and Dennis Andrucyk showcased upcoming missions to inform the industry crowd of opportunities to partner up.

“Now space is a team sport,” said Andrucyk, deputy associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. “We can enable all these missions through collaboration – with industry, with academia, and with international partners.”

Congress recently approved $22 billion of funding for NASA , which included $600 million for lunar lander work. Eighty-five percent of that amount goes out to the private sector, said DeWit, NASA’s Chief Financial Officer.

A mission like Artemis  – a return to the Moon – will require the delivery of all kinds of payloads from Earth, including robots and eventually humans. To support the transport, NASA created a program called Commercial Lunar Payload Services .

Through CLPS, a collection of 14 industry partners are able to bid on agency proposals. New members, added in November of 2019, include Blue Origin, Ceres Robotics, Sierra Nevada Corporation, SpaceX, and Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems.

The team effort represents a new business model, according to the NASA speakers at CES.

“We’re putting our money where our mouth is and helping those commercial companies spin out capabilities so that there’s a very viable lunar exploration market in the future,” said Andrucyk.

Another lunar need: If NASA wants to go to Mars, astronauts will have to stop at the Moon for fuel.

The Moon has millions of tons of water ice at its poles. Can that hydrogen and oxygen be converted into energy for the spacecraft?

“If we can refuel on the Moon and not have to take all our fuel there, that drastically changes the vehicles we take, and it drastically changes the amount of science we take,” said DeWit. “The technology doesn’t exist to do that, but if you figure that out, you’re going to make a lot of money.”

In the Apollo days, NASA built, owned, and operated every piece of technology that brought astronauts to the Moon. Now, the model is reversed, and NASA is increasingly a customer of the private sector.

Collaborating with industry allows the agency to still work with the best engineers in the world who no longer head straight to Kennedy Space Center after college.

Rather than compete with the external space firms like SpaceX and Blue Origin, why not collaborate?

“It’s hard for us to get that top engineering student unless they know and love NASA,” said DeWit. “We still get them in our wider NASA umbrella by having them work with us through commercial partnerships.”

The CES presentation demonstrated that NASA’s needs go beyond the Moon. The agency’s three panelists spent much of their presentation yesterday showcasing missions on the horizon, including the 2021 launch of the James Webb Space Telescope  and the landing of an octocopter on Saturn’s moon by 2036 .

an illustration of the Dragonfly drone octocopter that will land on Saturn's moon Titan in 2036
This is an illustration of the Dragonfly Dragonfly rotorcraft-lander. Set for launch in 2026 and arrival on Saturn in 2034, the drone will search for signs of life on the planet.

“We have about 100 missions going on right now,” said Andrucyk. “Every one of those need transportation to orbit.”

You don’t have to want to be the astronaut to collaborate either, said Blackwood, who, as Program Executive for NASA iTech, is responsible for finding problem-solving Earth technologies that can be used in space.

“A lot of the companies we see through our program are developing technologies that enable a spacecraft to fly more efficiently or have better fuel efficiency or propulsion systems,” said Blackwell.

Although NASA may not be every top engineer’s first stop out of school anymore and has dealt with reduced budgets and the closing of its shuttle program, the team at CES assured the crowd that missions are alive and well – and so is industry collaboration.

“It’s a really exciting time to be with NASA again,” said DeWit. “Right now we’re at a time of extreme growth and new programs and projects.”

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