NASA funds moon projects to help missions to ‘live off the land’

NASA took a significant step Tuesday toward allowing humans on the moon to “live off the land,” awarding several contracts to build landing pads, roads and habitats on the lunar surface, use nuclear power for energy and even lay a high-voltage power line over half a mile.

In all, the agency is investing a total of $150 million, while the 11 companies that received awards are required to invest their own money to pay at least 10 to 25 percent of their projects’ costs.

The awards come as NASA is working to return astronauts to the lunar surface for the first time since 1972. Under its Artemis program, NASA intends to fly a crew of four around the moon by the end of 2024, with a landing to come as early as 2025, though the schedules of those missions could slip.

Instead of going to the moon and returning home, as was done during the Apollo era of the 1960s and early ’70s, NASA intends to build a sustainable presence focusing on the lunar South Pole, where there is water in the form of ice. The contracts awarded Tuesday are some of the first steps the agency is taking toward developing the technologies that would allow humans to live for extended periods of time on the moon and in deep space.

The moon beckons once again. This time NASA hopes to stay.

In an interview, Prasun Desai, NASA’s acting associate administrator for space technology, said astronauts on the moon will be like “the settlers who came to Jamestown [Virginia]. They lived off the land.”

Materials on the moon must be used to extract the necessities such as water, fuel and metal for construction, Desai said. “We’re trying to start that technology development to make that a reality in the future,” he said.

NASA wants to take us back to the moon — this time to stay. Here are the challenges we’re going to have to overcome to make that happen. (Video: Brian Monroe, Daron Taylor/The Washington Post, Photo: Brian Monroe/The Washington Post)

The largest award, $34.7 million, went to billionaire Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin space venture, which has been working on a project since 2021 called Blue Alchemist to build solar cells and transmission wire out of the moon’s regolith — rocks and dirt. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

In a blog post this year, Blue Origin said it developed a reactor that reaches temperatures of nearly 3,000 degrees and uses an electrical current to separate iron, silicon and aluminum from oxygen in the regolith. The testing, using a lunar regolith simulant, has created silicon pure enough to make solar cells to be used on the lunar surface, the company said. The oxygen could be used for humans to breathe.

“To make long-term presence on the moon viable, we need abundant electrical power,” the company wrote in the post. “We can make power systems on the moon directly from materials that exist everywhere on the surface, without special substances brought from Earth.”

The award is another indication that Blue Origin is trying to position itself as a key player in helping NASA build a permanent presence on and around the moon as part of the Artemis program. While Elon Musk’s SpaceX has moved much faster in developing rockets and spacecraft to transport astronauts to the International Space Station, Blue Origin has been working on technologies to live and work in space for long periods, one of Bezos’s main goals.

This year, the company won a $3.4 billion NASA contract to build a spacecraft capable of landing humans on the moon by 2029, which would follow two crewed landings by SpaceX. One of the key parts of Blue Origin’s proposal wasn’t the spacecraft, however, but rather how it would be fueled.

The company said it is developing a solar-powered storage tank to keep propellants at 20 degrees Kelvin, or about minus-423 degrees Fahrenheit, so spacecraft can refuel in space instead of returning to Earth between missions.

Astrobotic, a Pittsburgh-based company that intends to launch a robotic lander to the moon this year for NASA, won $34.6 million to build a power line that would transmit electricity from a lunar lander’s solar arrays to a rover. It ultimately intends to build a larger power source using solar arrays on the moon’s surface.

Another company, Zeno Power, intends to use nuclear energy to provide power on the moon. The company, which received a $15 million contract, and is partnering with Blue Origin and others, says it will be able to convert the heat generated from decaying radioisotopes into electricity in areas “where solar power is extremely challenging,” Tyler Bernstein, the company’s CEO, said in an interview.

He said the technology fits the Artemis program’s “broader goal” of a long-term lunar presence. “We’re going to be there sustainably for years, and surviving and operating during the lunar night is one of the biggest challenges,” Bernstein said.

Another company, Redwire, of Jacksonville, Fla., won $12.9 million to help build roads and landing pads on the moon. It would use a microwave emitter to melt the regolith and transform treacherous rocky landscapes into smooth, solid surfaces, said Mike Gold, Redwire’s chief growth officer.

“There is going to be a lot of upcoming activity on the moon, and we will need good, solid landing pads,” he said. “Second only to gravity, a bad landing pad is the worst enemy of any mission to the moon.”

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