Human remains propelled to a permanent resting place beyond Earth, a digital library designed to last billions of years, and a capsule containing messages from 80,000 children.
This odd assortment is set to be carried on one of the first commercial transports to the Moon, due in the first half of 2021. If all goes to plan, it will signal a new commercial involvement in lunar exploration, potentially opening a big new frontier for the private space industry.
This weekend's 50th anniversary of the first human Moon landing has brought intense interest in the prospects for a return visit. The White House earlier this year called for American astronauts to set foot on the lunar surface again in 2024. That would potentially fall within a second Trump presidential term, and four years earlier than planned.
Though considered a long shot given how little time is available, the call carried a strong whiff of the politically charged, budget-stretching ambition of the Apollo programme of the 1960s. But Nasa has already been turning to the private sector for low-cost ways of complementing future human missions, in the process potentially seeding a new commercial space market.
The emergence of a start-up space industry, led by Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin, has led to a new symbiosis in space. The tech titans see Nasa as an important early customer as they pursue their grand long-term visions — while the space agency has found ways to ride on the back of their development work rather than create the technology for its programmes from scratch.
Backing a network of private companies capable of creating a supply line to the Moon is the first step. Astrobotic, the company planning the 2021 mission, won a $79.5m contract from Nasa in May, making it one of three that will carry government cargo. Most of the development money for the company, which advertises its ability to land payloads on the lunar surface for $1.2m per kilogramme, has come in the form of advance payments from other customers. Along with carrying items such as human remains and "time capsules", Astrobotic has sold sponsorship to DHL, which wants to be associated with the first Moon delivery.
"It's a bootstrapped lunar transport company," said Chad Anderson, head of Space Angels, an investor in New York that led the only outside investment Astrobotic has taken. "They're going to the Moon in a year-and-a-half and they've only raised $2.5m in equity — it's crazy."
The new lunar economy
Nasa's efforts to include the private space industry in its plans for the Moon are about more than cost. The agency believes that this is the only way to create a sustainable lunar economy once government attention — and budgets — move elsewhere, said Laura Forczyk, a space consultant at Astralytical. "They want to create a marketplace," she said — not just for transport, but for many of the technologies needed to support future human landings and, eventually, turn the Moon into an industrial base and stepping stone to the rest of the solar system.
The stark contrast between the first low-budget commercial payloads and the huge cost of putting humans back on the Moon points to a chasm that has opened up between the different ways Nasa promotes space exploration.
Traditional government space programmes, where contractors are paid a mark-up over their costs, still eat up most of the agency's budget. Nasa's biggest programmes — the Space Launch System, a rocket capable of carrying humans to the moon, led by Boeing, and the Orion spacecraft, from Lockheed Martin — soak up $2bn a year, or about 10 per cent of the agency's budget, and are already years behind schedule. But the political capital tied up in these programmes is widely believed to make them inviolable.
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Turning to fixed-price contracts for some of its activities, on the other hand, has enabled Nasa to stretch its budget further and bring stronger commercial incentives into the space programme. This new style of contracting has been well-suited to areas where the technologies are better known and private companies are later able to sell the same products to others, creating a commercial market where Nasa is the lead customer.
It first used these in 2008, handing out work to commercial launch companies, including Elon Musk's SpaceX. Had it used its traditional cost-plus approach for this work, Nasa estimates it would have spent up to 10 times the $400m that SpaceX spent developing its Falcon 9. That rocket has since become a mainstay for resupplying the International Space Station and a model for future space development.
Nasa is now seeking to extend this commercial approach as it turns its sights from near-earth exploration to the Moon and tries to jump-start a new phase for the commercial space industry.
The lunar payload programme, which will soak up little more than 1 per cent of Nasa's annual budget, is designed to put equipment on the Moon ahead of the next expensive human mission. The gear is set to include rovers that can search for water, simple solar power plants and communication masts — the first rudimentary parts of an infrastructure to support a long-term presence.
"The first big business on the Moon is transport and delivery," said John Thornton, chief executive of Astrobotic. "Robotic assets can really magnify what humans can do, to get bang for the buck."
The road to the Moon
The biggest hope for the commercial sector lies in a later, second phase of Moon development. If there is as much frozen water at the Moon's poles as many hope, it could theoretically be separated into oxygen and hydrogen to make rocket propellant, turning the Moon into a fuel stop for future missions to Mars. Mining precious metals left by asteroid strikes could become a second bonanza for the private sector.
Rushing to claim these resources has brought talk of a new space race — one that the first private companies eyeing the Moon are keen to feed.
"It looks like the Moon is going to be a hotspot of international interest," said Bob Richards, chief executive of Moon Express, which is hoping for a future Nasa transport contract after failing in the first round of bidding. "There are scarce resources on the Moon — and also scarce real estate."
Nasa has also turned to fixed-price contracts for parts of its next planned human mission. Last month, it awarded the first contract for the solar power and propulsion systems needed for a planned lunar gateway — a space station that would orbit the Moon and act as a stepping-off point for trips down to the lunar surface.
With the White House trying to bring forward the date for a landing, private companies are now angling for more work. Jeff Bezos's space company Blue Origin has been developing a Moon lander for three years, potentially making it the only one in a position to meet the 2024 target. Mr Musk also signalled his interest in the Moon earlier this year, turning his attention back from Mars towards what could be the next big commercial opportunity.
Proponents argue that Nasa should make much greater use of commercial contracting. With the agency's resources stretched, it makes sense to shift all but the most risky development on to the private sector, said Phil Larson, a former SpaceX executive and adviser in the Obama White House.
A wholesale shift, however, could carry risks. Some industry executives question, for instance, whether Nasa will give the private sector free rein to come up with its own solutions for the most important space programmes, rather than falling back on its traditional habits of issuing detailed specifications and keeping tight control.
Commercial operators also face acute political risk, as US priorities in space seemingly shift with each new administration.
"The key to sustainability is speed," said Mike Gold, vice-president of civil space at Maxar — building fast enough to avoid the project cancellations that often come when the political winds change. Maxar itself lost out when a planned asteroid redirect mission, proposed by the Obama White House, was cancelled under the current administration.
But the private companies setting their sights on this latest space race argue that, whatever the short-term volatility in government policy, a more permanent human presence on the Moon will be an inescapable step in future human space exploration.
"It's a place to live and work off-world," said Ms Forczyk. "There's still so much to learn before we go off and explore the solar system."
The new space race
US vice-president Mike Pence lays out a goal of returning to the Moon, without specifying a date
Google abandons its $30m Lunar X Prize after 11 years when no private company succeeds in the challenge of landing a robotic rover on the Moon
Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa signs up to become the first tourist to fly around the Moon, in a SpaceX mission scheduled for 2023
China becomes the first country to land on the far side of the Moon
Nasa says it plans to have spacecraft capable of landing a human on the Moon by 2028
Mr Pence sets a new 2024 deadline for a human landing
Israel fails to become the fourth country to make a successful landing on the Moon when its lander crashes on descent
India delays launch of its first Moon lander for technical reasons
© 2019 The Financial Times Ltd.