“NASA has begun to make good on its promise to use commercial companies to help with its lunar exploration efforts,” Ars Technica reports.

On Friday, the space agency announced that it has contracted with three companies—Orbit Beyond, Astrobotic, and Intuitive Machines—to deliver scientific payloads to the Moon in the years 2020 and 2021. The announcement is significant for several reasons, not least because no private company has ever landed successfully on the Moon and because the United States has not made a soft landing on the Moon in 46 years.

This program, formally named Commercial Lunar Payload Services, represents the vanguard of a decade-long plan for NASA to return to the Moon and potentially establish an outpost for crew on the surface. With this first tentative step, NASA will attempt to better characterize the lunar surface for human activity, and it will begin to study the potential for using resources there.

“The most important goal we have right now is really science, but we do so as part of the agency’s strategy to go to the Moon,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, who heads up the space agency’s science programs. “We want to do it with partners. We want to not only go there, but to grow an industry. That’s the only way we can stay.”

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