NASA Unleashes Commercial Space Race to Mars

In a bold move shaking up the exclusive domain of publicly-funded Mars exploration, NASA is inviting private companies along for the journey to the Red Planet. The space agency just awarded a dozen research contracts to nine different commercial firms as the first step towards potential future commercial support for Mars missions.

NASA Unleashes Commercial Space Race to Mars
NASA Unleashes Commercial Space Race to Mars

It’s the latest signal that NASA is actively seeking to replicate its successful commercial partnerships for lunar operations on an even grander scale – tapping the innovation and cost-efficiency of the private space industry to open up new frontiers on Mars.

“These are important first steps for NASA to understand the feasibility and risks of leveraging commercial technologies for Mars missions,” said Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division. “We want to develop a new paradigm of more frequent, lower-cost voyages through government-industry partnerships.”

The contracts, while modest at $200,000 to $300,000 each, cover a wide range of potential Mars commercial services like payload transport, surface imaging, communications relays and more. Aerospace giants like Lockheed Martin and Blue Origin were selected alongside visionary startups like Firefly Aerospace and Impulse Space.

Nearly all the concepts adapt existing private capabilities being pioneered for the Moon and Earth orbit to the much more challenging Mars environment and distances. The 12-week studies will wrap in August, informing NASA’s planning for potential future solicitations and contracts.

It comes just weeks after NASA essentially scrapped plans for a conventional, multibillion-dollar government-led Mars Sample Return mission in favor of a still-undetermined commercial alternative likely relying heavily on private partnerships.


The shift mirrors NASA’s highly successful Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, which has facilitated dozens of commercial lunar deliveries and the first private Moon landers. Like CLPS, these Mars study awards show NASA’s growing comfort collaborating directly with smaller, cutting-edge space startups.

Of course, the technological hurdles of operating robotic explorers hundreds of millions of miles from Earth are sure to be exponentially greater than anything yet accomplished around the Moon’s relatively close orbit. But that only amplifies the disruptive potential of innovative private players.

“Partnerships with commercial companies could enable more frequent measurement and capabilities than any one partner could provide alone,” said Chris Culbert, manager of NASA’s Mars Relay Network Office. “It could truly revolutionize how NASA explores the red planet.”

While Mars has historically been the exclusive domain of global superpowers’ space programs, NASA clearly recognizes private firms have become too capable to ignore – a realization with massive implications.


As industry upstarts prove their mettle delivering big results with leaner budgets and bolder timelines, the future of Mars exploration may shift decisively towards a commercial space race.

So get ready to hear a lot more about companies like Impulse, Firefly, and Astrobotic in the coming years. If all goes according to NASA’s plan, these private pioneers could soon find themselves following in the first human bootprints on the Moon by also becoming the first commercial explorers on Mars.



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