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NASA chooses three companies to help astronauts drive around the Moon| GuyWhoKnowsThings

NASA will rent some cool wheels to drive around the moon.

Space agency officials announced Wednesday that they have hired three companies to develop preliminary designs for vehicles that will carry NASA astronauts around the lunar south pole region in the coming years. After astronauts return to Earth, these vehicles could drive themselves as robotic explorers, similar to NASA's Mars rovers.

The autonomous driving capability would also allow the vehicle to fulfill the next astronaut mission in a different location.

“There are no paths to where it will go,” Jacob Bleacher, NASA's chief exploration scientist, said at a news conference Wednesday. “Its mobility will fundamentally change our view of the Moon.”

The companies are Intuitive Machines of Houston, which in February Robotic spacecraft successfully landed on the Moon; Golden Lunar Outpost, Colorado; and Venturi Astrolab in Hawthorne, California. Only one of the three will build a vehicle for NASA and send it to the moon.

NASA had requested proposals for what it called the Lunar Terrain Vehicle, or LTV, which could drive at speeds of up to 15 kilometers per hour, travel a dozen kilometers on a single charge and allow astronauts to drive for eight hours.

The agency will work with the three companies for a year to further develop their designs. NASA will then choose one of them for the demonstration phase.

The LTV will not be ready in time for the astronauts of Artemis III, the first landing on NASA's moon return programwhich currently scheduled for 2026.

The plan is for the LTV to be on the lunar surface before Artemis V, the third astronaut landing expected in 2030, said Lara Kearney, surface human mobility and extravehicular activity program manager at the NASA's Johnson Space Center. POT.

“If they can get there sooner, we'll get there sooner,” Ms. Kearney said.

The LTV contract will be worth up to $4.6 billion over the next 15 years: five years of development and then a decade of operations on the moon, most of it going to the winner of this competition. But Kearney said the contracts allow NASA to later fund the development of additional rovers or allow other companies to compete in the future.

The contract follows NASA's recent strategy of purchasing services instead of hardware.

In the past, NASA paid aerospace companies to build vehicles that it then owned and operated. That included the Saturn V rocket, the space shuttles and the lunar rovers, popularly known as moon buggies — which astronauts led to the moon during the last three Apollo missions in 1971 and 1972.

The new approach has was successful and less expensive for transporting cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station. NASA now pays companies, particularly Elon Musk's SpaceX, flat fees for those services, more like airline tickets or FedEx shipments.

For the company chosen to build the LTV, the vehicle will remain its property and will be able to rent it to other customers when NASA does not need it.

“It's commercially available for us as a commercial business to sell capacity on that rover,” said Steve Altemus, CEO of Intuitive Machines, “and do it for international partners and for other commercial companies and space agencies around the world.”

The competition created alliances between small startups and larger, established aerospace companies as well as automotive companies. The Intuitive Machines team includes Boeing, Northrop Grumman and Michelin, the tire maker. Lunar Outpost added to its team Lockheed Martin, Goodyear and General Motors, which had helped design the Apollo lunar buggies.

Astrolab is working with Axiom Space of Houston, which has sent private astronauts to the space station and is building a commercial module for the International Space Station. Astrolab announced last year that it had signed an agreement to send one of its rovers to the moon on a SpaceX Starship rocket as early as 2026. That mission is independent of whether it is selected by NASA, a company spokesperson said.

While Lunar Outpost competes with Intuitive Machines on this contract, it plans to work with the company separately, sending smaller robotic vehicles to the moon on the company's lunar landers.

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