Space race incentives: A lunar return prize or pay-on-delivery contracts?

Space race incentives: A lunar return prize or pay-on-delivery contracts?

Recently, former House Speaker Newt GingrichNewton (Newt) Leroy GingrichMORE caused considerable excitement when he proposed a concept, which he calls the Moon-Mars Development Prize Competition. This proposed government-funded prize would award $2 billion to the first private company to return humans to the moon and set up a base there. He hastened to add that this plan is not meant to replace NASA’s Project Artemis, but would run in parallel. The prize competition would be an insurance policy for just in case Artemis begins to falter, for technical, budgetary or political reasons.

The idea is beguiling. While NASA proposes to spend tens of billions of dollars to return humans to the moon, the Gingrich Moon Prize would cost just $2 billion, to be spent only if the goal is accomplished. A number of billionaire space entrepreneurs are candidates for competitors. SpaceX’s Elon MuskElon Reeve MuskWhatsApp delays controversial privacy update Fringe social networks boosted after mob attack NASA's Europa Clipper has been liberated from the Space Launch System MORE and Blue Origin’s Jeff BezosJeffrey (Jeff) Preston BezosAmazon suspends Parler from web hosting service World's richest people added .8T to their combined wealth in 2020 Amazon delivered more than 1.5 billion items over holiday season MORE come to mind.

On the other hand, the chances that the current Congress would vote to appropriate funds for a Moon-Mars Development Prize Competition, even as part of NASA’s budget, are all but nil. No matter what Gingrich says, politicians would see the competition as an alternative and not complimentary to Artemis.


NASA Administrator Jim BridenstineJames (Jim) Frederick BridenstineWill Axiom Space provide a commercial space station replacement for NASA's ISS? NASA-Canadian agreement demonstrates how Artemis is an international moonshot NASA selects the next Artemis moonwalkers while SpaceX flies a Starship MOREaccording to Ars Technica, was open to the idea of a prize competition or several as part of Artemis. He responded with the idea of contracting with commercial space companies with pay on delivery deals. That plan involves asking a company like SpaceX or Blue Origin to create a product or perform a service, only paying them when the said thing is delivered, making the private firm shoulder all the risk.  Bridenstine has already discussed the idea of pay-on-delivery contracts for transporting cargo to the lunar surface,

Thus far, NASA has taken a middle ground between pay on delivery and the most traditional kind of cost-plus contract by paying for milestones for development projects. The Commercial Crew program that is building private spacecraft to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station is a prime example.

The first voyages back to the moon are planned to be a combination of the traditional, tried and true NASA approach to spaceflight and something more like Commercial Crew. The astronauts will fly to a moon orbiting Gateway space station in an Orion spacecraft, boosted to space by a heavy lift Space Launch System. They will pick up a commercial lunar lander at the Gateway and ride it the rest of the way to the lunar surface.

A pay-on-delivery arrangement might work within rather than parallel to Artemis and would involve the supplies needed to build a permanent lunar base.

Fast forward to the late 2020s, after NASA and its international partners have mounted a number of sortie missions to the moon. The space agency would contract with a company such as SpaceX or Blue Origin to deliver a cargo of habitats, rovers and other supplies to the site where the lunar base is planned. The company delivers the cargo and only then gets paid for the service. Astronauts would then unload the commercial spacecraft that has landed on the lunar surface and start setting up the first permanent home for humans on another world.


Eventually, when NASA and its commercial and international partners are confident in the cargo service’s reliability, it could be expanded to take astronauts to and from the lunar base. The base itself could be operated as a commercial entity, with NASA and other international and commercial entities renting space on the facility.

While the lunar base’s residents explore and commercially exploit the moon and its resources, NASA could shift its focus to Mars. The moon base could provide rocket fuel, refined from lunar ice mined at the moon’s south pole. Bridenstine has been touting the moon as a practice ground and a stepping stone for President TrumpDonald TrumpNYT: Rep. Perry played role in alleged Trump plan to oust acting AG Arizona GOP censures top state Republicans McCain, Flake and Ducey Biden and UK prime minister discuss NATO, multilateralism during call MORE’s dream of raising the American flag on the surface of Mars. A commercially run and supplied lunar base would serve as a refueling stop for such an undertaking, the last port of call before future spacecraft travel to Mars sometime in the 2030s.

Whether voyages to Mars will be commercial, as Elon Musk dreams, or government run, as NASA plans, remains to be seen.

Mark Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.”