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NASA Ready to Risk Failed Launches and Landings to Return to Moon

NASA is aiming for a speedy — and lengthy — return to the Moon using commercial operators and is willing to accept higher risks to achieve it.

“We care about speed. We do not expect that every one of those launches or every one of those landings will be successful,” associate administrator Thomas Zurbuchen said Thursday. “We are taking risks.”

Zurbuchen and NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine announced a bevy of lunar projects during the briefing, including fleshed-out details of the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) contracts, which invite commercial firms to bid for the rights to develop vehicles to carry science and technology payloads that will ultimately operate on the surface of the Moon.

NASA intends to land an unmanned vehicle on the Moon by 2024 and is inviting concepts for the lander, a space refueling system, and a transfer vehicle by March 25.

These concepts will provide the basis for returning a manned crew to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972, using a space station in lunar orbit called Gateway. Bridenstine introduced Gateway last month, describing it as a home base for a reusable lunar lander that aims to make it easier for astronauts to shuttle back and forth from the lunar surface.

“This time, when we go to the moon, we’re actually going to stay. We’re not going to leave flags and footprints and then come home, to not go back for another 50 years,” Bridenstine added Thursday.

“We’re doing it entirely different than every other country in the world. What we’re doing is, we’re making it sustainable so you can go back and forth regularly with humans.”

Nine companies are bidding on CLPS contracts, and next week, NASA will announce the first dozen payloads. The bidders include startups such as Astrobotic Technology and aerospace giants such as Lockheed Martin Space.

NASA’s proposal for returning to the moon meshes well with plans for Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin lunar lander, GeekWire reports. SpaceX, on the other hand, is building a lander intended to drop directly to planetary surfaces.

American contenders will be racing international newcomers to the space race such as Israel and India. While nationally-backed programs have landed on the moon, a handful of companies tried and failed to win the Google Lunar X Prize that offered $20 million to the first private landing. NASA’s latest plans have the advantages of both models, Bridenstine said.