NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced the nine companies that will be the first to participate in the agency's new Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program.
They include some longtime players in the aerospace industry, like Lockheed Martin, but are mostly newer names with start-up cultures, like Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic and Masten Space Systems in Mojave, California.
"More missions, more science", a news release about the CLPS program promised. The first could fly as early as next year, and NASA hopes to send two payloads every year for the next 10 years. NASA will supply instruments or technology demonstrations to be placed on the spacecraft.
The McCandless Lunar Lander is named after the late astronaut and former Lockheed Martin employee Bruce McCandless, who in 1984 performed the first free-flying spacewalk without a lifeline to the orbiting shuttle, using a jetpack built by the company.
Although NASA initially declined to confirm media reports that the review was prompted by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk's appearance on a filmed podcast in which he was smoking a joint, Bridenstine admitted Thursday, during a roundtable with reporters, it "was not helpful".
NASA officials say the goal of the planned spaceflight is to transport equipment for performing experiments and collecting information about the moon.
"We believe that there is a lot of fantastic science that we can do on the surface of the Moon", Bridenstine said. The goal is to get small science and technology experiments to the surface of the moon as soon as possible. He also said he expects to have people regularly working on the moon within 10 years. But it is also expected to serve as a launching point for missions to other parts of the solar system, including the planet Mars. NASA said that additional companies could be included at a later date. "The likeliness of succeeding - I'm skeptical that many will".
NASA sees this as a step toward long-term study and human exploration of the moon - and eventually Mars.
The commercial partners announced today will develop their own spacecrafts to get NASA's payloads, and those of other customers, into space.
In response, NASA submitted a plan to Congress: the National Space Exploration Campaign, which "calls for human and robotic exploration missions to expand the frontiers of human experience and scientific discovery of the natural phenomena of Earth, other worlds and the cosmos", the agency said.
SpaceX in particular has drawn scrutiny after founder Elon Musk took a hit of marijuana and drank whiskey on a podcast. Team Indus, based in Bangalore, India, is not eligible itself for a CLPS award because of NASA requirements that companies be based in the United States, with development work done domestically.