NASA picks 9 companies in race for $2.6B lunar transport contract

NASA chose nine American companies, including Lockheed Martin, to compete for up to $2.6 billion worth of contracts as part of its endeavor to return to – and sustain human presence on – the moon.

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The space agency announced the winners of its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program on Thursday, narrowing it down from 30 companies, including SpaceX, Blue Origin and Sierra Nevada Corp. It selected Astrobotic Technology, Deep Space Systems, Firefly Aerospace, Intuitive Machines, Lockheed Martin Space, Masten Space Systems, Moon Express, Orbit Beyond and Draper.

“We are doing something that’s never been done before. When we go to the moon, we want to be one customer of many customers in a robust marketplace between the Earth and the moon and want multiple providers that are competing,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, according to The Orlando Sentinel. “Welcome to the competition.”

The program uses taxpayer funds to finance private companies for missions intended to rejuvenate space exploration in the U.S. Only 12 men have stepped foot on the moon since humans first landed in 1969, according to NASA, the last time in 1972.

The nine companies can bid to compete for certain tasks, like sending science instruments and new technologies into deep space, over the next 10 years, but the amount of money they receive from the agency will vary depending on the job. Some of the missions will begin as soon as next year.

The missions are all a precursor to what the agency said will be human landings on the moon, and eventually Mars exploration.

“Establishing a sustained presence on and near the Moon will help us learn to live off of our home planet and prepare for travel to Mars,” NASA said in a statement.

NASA already works with private companies, including SpaceX and Northrop Grumman, to send cargo to the International Space Station.