Nov. 29 (UPI) -- NASA announced several commercial partners Thursday in the U.S. space agency's quest to return humans to the moon -- and eventually Mars.
The list included several relatively new companies, like Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic and California-based Masten Space Systems, as well as longtime government contractors like Lockheed Martin and Draper.
The partnering companies were announced during a press conference held at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., which was streamed live on NASA TV.
"Today's announcement marks tangible progress in America's return to the Moon's surface to stay," said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. "The innovation of America's aerospace companies, wedded with our big goals in science and human exploration, are going to help us achieve amazing things on the Moon and feed forward to Mars."
The full list of nine companies -- Astrobotic, Deep Space Systems, Draper, Firefly Aerospace, Intuitive Machines, Lockheed Martin, Masten Space Systems, Moon Express and Orbit Beyond -- will bid on delivery of science and technology payloads for NASA.
The companies were awarded 10-year indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity contracts with a maximum value of $2.6 billion, with the first lunar payloads flying as early as 2019, NASA said.
According to Bridenstine, the new partners will compete to provide the best prices and innovations, creating a marketplace for transportation to and from the moon. The marketplace is being organized as part of the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program.
While some of the companies are relatively new, others, like Draper, have been involved with the U.S. space program for decades.
During preparation for the first lunar missions in the 1960s, NASA tapped Draper for development of guidance, navigation and control systems.
For the new missions, the company said it will use its uncrewed lander, Artemis-7, to complete sample selection and return, contribute to plans for the eventual return of humans to the moon's surface.
"The Artemis-7 design will fly multiple times before its first CLPS mission," said Seamus Tuohy, principal director of space systems at Draper. "Our lander design has secured substantial private funding. When you combine those investments with the extensible capability of the team and our history of delivering humans to the moon and bringing them back, we're positioned well to meet NASA's mission needs."
NASA plans to have astronauts orbiting the moon again by 2023, with a landing a few years later. Humans have not walked on the moon since Apollo 17 left in December 1972.
Before NASA returns humans to the moon, however, the space agency plans to send an array of scientific payloads -- science experiments, in other words -- to the lunar surface. The new commercial partners will compete for the opportunity to ferry those experiments to and from the moon.
"We believe that there is a lot of amazing science that we can do on the surface of the Moon," Bridenstine said.
Science payloads will eventually be followed by live astronauts. NASA is currently working with commercial partners to carry astronauts to and from the space station.
SpaceX and Boeing are both building spacecraft designed to shepherd astronauts to and from the International Space Station. SpaceX's Crew Dragon is scheduled for a test mission in June and Boeing's Orbital Flight test flight is set for August.