As part of a push to land U.S. astronauts on the moon by the middle of this decade, NASA has selected a Kern County company to deliver cargo to the lunar surface.
Masten Space Systems, a commercial space company based at Mojave Air and Space Port in the Kern County desert, is being tapped by the agency to carry eight payloads to the moon’s South Pole in 2022.
The contract is worth $75.9 million.
"The path to the moon goes through Mojave," said Masten CEO Sean Mahoney.
"Masten has been working for the last decade to bring the moon into the economic sphere," Mahoney said in an email. "That work and the progress from it lead directly to this lunar delivery contract through NASA CLPS."
CLPS, NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services, is a partnership between NASA and several American companies to deliver science and technology to the lunar surface, including launching from Earth and landing on the surface of the Moon. Early commercial delivery missions will perform science experiments, test technologies and demonstrate capabilities to help NASA prepare for human missions beginning as early as 2024.
The contract makes Masten the fourth company awarded a lunar delivery contract by NASA. The other three are Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines, as well as Orbit Beyond, however Orbit Beyond later dropped out of its contract.
The new Masten contract is part of NASA’s Artemis program, which seeks to return humans to the surface of the Moon, and set up permanent scientific exploration there, with the ultimate aim of using it as a stepping stone to taking humans to Mars and potentially beyond. NASA has focused on public-private partnerships like those formed through the CLPS program to assist it in making its Moon and Mars missions possible, and bringing commercial interests along for the ride.
Masten, which arrived in Mojave in 2006 as a start-up, is surrounded by other aerospace firms, some with deep pockets, billionaire backers and huge, gleaming facilities. Masten's shop is modest in contrast, but its size and agility has often been an asset.
Karina Drees, the space port's CEO and general manager, said Masten has been doing extraordinary work in Kern County for years.
"This selection provides the Masten team validation that their hard work is paying off," Drees said Monday. "They are one of the few small space companies in Mojave that continue to break the mold and we look forward to seeing many more successes from this team."
Last year, Vice President Mike Pence announced that the Trump administration wanted to return to the moon and land humans on the surface within five years.
The short timeline will test the emerging partnerships between NASA and commercial companies that have become the standard in recent years.
But as NASA cedes some of its former glory — and funding — to rocket scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs in the private sector, the Mojave Air and Space Port and Masten appear eager to rise to the challenge.
One of Masten's specialties is called VTVL, or vertical takeoff, vertical landing. The company can — and has — landed rockets within one inch of target.
Kern County Supervisor Zack Scrivner, whose 2nd District includes the space port, lauded Masten and Mojave as a center of ingenuity and risk taking.
"Congratulations to Dave Masten and his team on this exciting new contract with NASA," Scrivner said. "Once again, the brilliant entrepreneurs at the Mojave Air and Space Port are on the cutting edge of the growing commercial space industry."