The first missions could launch next year, as NASA only recently called for proposals for experiments to study the Moon.
The relatively small and affordable payloads delivered via the CLPS program would be followed by more traditional medium- and large-class missions, Bridenstine said, including an eventual crewed mission to the Moon.
Bridenstein said he's spoken with the South African-born Tesla founder, who promised he'd be changing his ways after being caught on video sipping a whiskey on the rocks and taking a hit from a joint on the "Joe Rogan Experience" podcast in September.
"We've never done anything that fast", said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, which manages the contracts with these firms. This new plan hopes to allow for a diverse array of customers send their payloads to the Moon.
In an announcement Thursday, the space agency named the organizations that are now eligible to bid on delivering science and technology payloads to the lunar surface. CLPS is a multi-award contract worth $2.6 billion over the course of its 10 year performance period.
"Today's announcement marks tangible progress in America's return to the Moon's surface to stay", Bridenstine said. "That legacy continues as we return to the moon and beyond with CLPS".
America's next moon landing will be made by private companies - possibly one from Colorado - not NASA. "These missions pave the way for a human return to the moon, as well as enable human exploration of Mars and beyond". Carpooling to the Moon - perhaps with academics or another company - should reduce the cost, he said.
Both SpaceX and Boeing hold multibillion-dollar contracts to fly NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station. The agency now partners with the private sector for other missions, including human transport to the International Space Station (ISS) wherein SpaceX and Boeing are developing capsules for that objective, and the Directive expands that to include deep space missions. In a departure from past practice, the companies own their rockets and spacecraft and can use them for other, non-government missions if a market develops.
NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine announced nine United States companies would compete in delivering experiments to the lunar surface. In a news release, NASA said that "w$3 orking with USA companies is the next step to achieving long-term scientific study and human exploration of the Moon and Mars".