NASA awarded contracts for three companies and their teams to move into the feasibility phase of developing options for a Lunar Terrain Vehicle (LTV). Renderings: Intuitive Machines, Lunar Outpost, Astrolab

NASA selected three companies to move forward with developing crewed, unpressurized rovers capable of operating on the Moon’s South Pole on Wednesday.

Intuitive Machine’s Moon RACER (Reusable Autonomous Crewed Exploration Rover), Lunar Outpost’s Lunar Dawn and Venturi Astrolab’s FLEX (Flexible Logistics and Exploration) rovers were selected by NASA as part of its Lunar Terrain Vehicle Service (LTVS) contract. The maximum potential value of the indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity, milestone-based contract is $4.6 billion, according to NASA.

Those three principles are each leading multi-company teams in this competition:

Moon RACER – Intuitive Machines, AVL, Boeing, Michelin and Northrop Grumman
Lunar Dawn – Lunar Outpost, Lockheed Martin, General Motors, Goodyear and MDA Space
FLEX – Venturi Astrolab, Axiom Space and Odyssey Space Research

“Science is our toolbox for learning and enhanced mobility is one of the most important tools in that science toolbox,” said Jacob Bleacher, NASA’s Chief Exploration Scientist, during the announcement at the Johnson Space Center on Wednesday.

“The diversity of Apollo samples increased when the Lunar Roving Vehicle enabled exploration of more surface area per-mission. That diversity of lunar knowledge is what we seek now,” he added.

Lara Kearney, the manager of the Extravehicular Activity and Human Surface Mobility Program at JSC said the contractors are being tasked with designing roving vehicle capability that would span 10 years. She said while there are certain high-level requirements placed on the providers chosen, they also have quite a bit of flexibility.

“We have asked the companies to meet a 10-year operating life. We did not define how they needed to do that,” Kearney said. “They could, for instance, come in and say, ‘I’m going to deliver one rover. It’s going to last 10 years’ or ‘I’m going to deliver 10 rovers that last only one year.’”

Congratulations to @Int_Machines, @LunarOutpostInc, and @Astrolab_Space for being selected to move forward in developing the #Artemis lunar terrain vehicle!

This Moon rover will allow future astronauts to travel far on the lunar surface: https://t.co/mzOd4Yz5XC pic.twitter.com/eB1QMq0PoO

— NASA (@NASA) April 3, 2024

The three companies will each receive a task order for the so-called “feasibility phase” of the LTVS program. It will last about 12 months culminating in a preliminary design review. That year-long period will allow NASA to work with them to “understand what their designs look like, iterating with them on where we can make improvements and understanding how they incorporate into our overall plan or architecture.”

“Once we get past that point, we will have a follow-on subsequent competitive request for proposal go out. They will then compete for what we call a ‘demonstration task order,” Kearney said. “That demonstration allow them to finish the development, get the LTV to the Moon and demonstrate it on the surface prior to the arrival of the Artemis 5 crew.”

Kearney said they will likely only be able to award the demonstration task order to one company. It will be followed by service task orders on an annual cadence to provided both crewed and uncrewed services throughout the remaining duration of the contract.

She said while NASA will be the primary customer via the Artemis program, about 25 percent of the rover’s usage will come from commercial customers.

“I think what’s really important also is to applaud NASA for this non-traditional, forward-thinking procurement,” said Steve Altemus, the CEO of Intuitive Machines. “It really is exciting that not only are we going to support the Artemis campaign, with crewed and uncrewed missions, but also it’s commercially available for us as a commercial business to sell capacity on that rover and do that for international partners and for other commercial companies and space agencies around the world.”

A rendering of Intuitive Machines’ Moon RACER rover, which is being developed in partnership with AVL, Boeing, Michelin and Northrop Grumman. Graphic: Intuitive Machines

Challenges to cruising the Moon

As is the case with any mission on the Moon, the proposition of bringing a rover that can drive with or without humans is a tall task. Beyond the three companies chosen, rovers like the ones developed by the Teledyne Brown-led team (which included Nissan North America, Sierra Space, Textron and Bridgestone Corporation) and a partnership between Lidos and NASACAR didn’t make the cut.

One of the challenges faced by the teams selected for this next phase is that their vehicles will need to be operable not only when an astronaut is at the controls in person, but also remotely from Earth, in between the crewed Artemis missions.

“One requirement from NASA is we can’t have more than 10-meter error on the lunar surface at any given time. This is without any infrastructure in place,” said Justin Cyrus, the CEO of Lunar Outpost. “We don’t have GPS satellites around the Moon, we don’t have communication infrastructure and we have to understand our environment and understand our vehicle dynamics to a point that we know exactly where we are.”

Lunar Dawn’s concept illustration of a NASA Lunar Terrain Vehicle (LTV) rover for the Artemis program. Graphic: Lunar Outpost

Another challenge will be in establishing a power collection and storage system that can not only provide enough service for the vehicle to operate for 10 years, but also one that can survive the harshness of lunar nighttime.

“There’s a number of the subsystems that we’ve put in as the initial design that will be traded over that 12-month period. That will give us a better understanding of things like survive the night, operate during the night, how effective solar arrays are versus fuel cells, what the drivetrain needs to look like, what the battery life extensions are, what the suspension needs to be,” Altemus said. “And tires in particular, we brought Michelin on board, who’s done extensive work on lunar tires with the Glenn Research Center. And so, that research has been going on for years.”

The three representatives of the winning companies didn’t go into great detail about their designs or specific numbers when it came to capability, citing the ongoing competition for the demonstration portion of the contract. Some of the NASA requirements, highlighted by Astrolab founder and CEO Jaret Matthews, include being able to travel at least 15 km/hr, traverse 20 km on a charge and support an eight-hour spacewalk mission.

Astrolab said in a statement that its contract is worth up to $1.9 billion and Intuitive Machines (Nasdaq: LUNR, LUNRW) said it received $30 million as a prime contractor. Lunar Outpost didn’t disclose the value of its contract in its press release.

A rendering of Astrolab’s FLEX rover on the surface of the Moon beside a SpaceX Starship rocket. Graphic: Astrolab

Matthews said his company built “a full-scale, fully-functional terrestrial prototype over two years ago and have been doing thousands of hours of testing in the field with it.”

“We frequently take it out to the Death Valley area of California and that has allowed us to stress the hardware and actually try out our tire prototypes in the real world environment as well as in our environmental chambers that we have at our company,” Matthews said. “Our tire technology has already been in thermal vacuum chambers. It’s currently on an endurance test rig at NASA Glenn.”

More rovers to come

While these three companies and their industry partners are working on these rovers, those aren’t the only ones being developed for use during the Artemis program.

Kearney said the LTV will be unpressurized vehicles, but they are also working to add pressurized rovers as an additional capability, such as the Lunar Cruiser developed by Toyota.

“The idea is that they work together as a part of a lunar system to support the crew,” Kearney said. “Where the LTV is unpressurized, it will likely be more limited in its range. A pressurized rover, when it comes along with the life support, we’ll be able to extend the cruise range even farther away from a lander.”

She teased that an announcement concerning the pressurized vehicles is coming “about a week from now.”

A rendering of Toyota’s Lunar Cruiser, a pressurized rover that is being considered for future operation on the Moon’s surface. Graphic: Toyota Read More – Spaceflight Now