Travel just north of Austin, Texas, and you might find yourself in startling proximity to a lunar lander.

That’s Firefly Aerospace’s Blue Ghost lander, a  6.6-foot-tall spacecraft that the company aims to fly next year in an inaugural mission for NASA. The spacecraft is large and boxy, with an 11.5-foot diameter and a 150-kilogram payload capacity to the surface. If all goes to plan, the lander will outlive every single person that worked on it.

“This is going to be on the moon for longer than Mount Everest will exist,” Blue Ghost’s chief engineer Will Coogan said in a recent interview. “It’s hard to think about.”

It is indeed hard. Blue Ghost is part of a new generation of landers, most of them funded via some combination of a NASA contract and private capital, that together represent one of the biggest, most audacious bets currently being wagered in the space industry. That bet is that there will soon be a market where now none exists: a market on and around the moon, which will generate high revenues and usher in a new era of human space exploration.

Indeed, while Blue Ghost Mission 1 is being launched as part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, the plan – for both the space agency and the private companies – is that future missions can eventually become self-sustaining, with NASA just the first of many customers looking to go to the moon. The space agency’s task order for this first mission came in at $93 million, so that’s quite a bit of money to make up; but a quick browse through ProWellTech archives shows the myriad startups that are looking to exploit this bet – from startups working on harvesting water on the moon to initiatives to develop a lunar navigation and positioning system.

Right now, Firefly has a second Blue Ghost mission scheduled: another CLPS task order to deliver payloads to the far side of the moon in 2026. They will likely bid on future orders, including one that will go to the moon’s south pole. But the company’s long-term goal is to fly a Blue Ghost mission once per year, task order or no, with commercial demand driving the market, Firefly’s VP of spacecraft Jana Spruce said.

“We’re hoping […] it becomes just more of a regular thing, as opposed to, if NASA’s driving the train, then everybody’s waiting on them to put out their next task order and that’s what’s driving the market, as opposed to letting the commercial side do it. I think NASA is open to that as well.”

Momentum for the lunar economy

Humanity is still a fairly long way from an established, sustainable lunar economy. Depending on who you ask, there may need to be some combination of the following: power and transmission infrastructure; a ground truth mapping system to help astronauts and rovers get around; and reliable spacecraft orbiting the moon, to pick up or drop off humans and cargo. All of which is to say, there are many unknowns – and huge risks for the players.

“What’s going to be the killer app for the moon? What’s going to be the business reason to go there?” Spruce said. “For there to be a commercial market, we’ll have to see how that goes.”

The space agency’s backing is one reason to be bullish about the lunar economy bet. Spruce pointed out that much of the answer to the above questions depends on what the science tells us about the moon – what resources are up there, and in what quantities – which is where NASA research comes in. The lander design also had science in mind, providing three sections for payload mounting: on top of the lander, for payload that need unobstructed views of the sky and horizon; mid-deck mounting, which Firefly says is ideal for rovers; and underneath the lander, for access to the surface.

The NASA payloads take advantage of all of these positions. Among the ten NASA payloads that Firefly is sending to a region of the moon called Mare Crisium in the northern lunar hemisphere, a few may provide quite a bit of information for those commercial upstarts. One, the Lunar PlanetVac developed by Honeybee Robotics, will collect, sort and characterize lunar regolith from its position underneath the lander; another, Aegis Aerospace’s Regolith Adherence Characterization, will measure how lunar regolith accumulates on the surface of several materials, including solar cells and optical systems.

“That’s a good thing about CLPS – there are a lot of these science payloads that are going to figure out what resources are there, what’s the environment actually like? As we learn more from those, it’ll be easier for those commercial folks to figure out [if] there are resources there that are valuable to either use in place or process in place,” Spruce said.

Spruce added that Firefly is especially interested in sample return missions, which would use its line of Elytra spacecraft as a transfer stage that remains in orbit around the moon.

Of course, all of the payloads will be for naught if Firefly doesn’t manage to land the spacecraft on the moon. It’s an immense technical challenge, as was sharply illustrated earlier this year, when Japanese company ispace’s first lunar lander crashed into the moon’s surface.

Firefly’s assembled a roster of partners for the mission: Blue Ghost’s main engine was built by Nammo in the United Kingdom; the lander is using guidance, navigation, and control flight software from Rocket Lab subsidiary ASI; in-space communications are being led by Gina Signori, President of Deep Space Communication Systems; and Space-ng is providing the vision navigation.

But even once Firefly lands on the moon – even after it pulls off the complex, precisely-timed sequence of orbital burns and maneuvers – that’s when the work begins. Blue Ghost will spend 14 days on the surface, plus five hours into the lunar night, providing power and communications to support payload operations.

“That’s when we start,” Coogan said. “That’s the beginning of our mission. So we have to do this almost impossible thing, and then we have to start.”

Firefly recently announced that the Blue Ghost lander is now structurally complete. It’s a milestone achievement, and one that – as with all the other CLPS vendors, including Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines – was achieved with relatively little hands-on oversight from NASA.

The task orders are under 36 months, so Firefly was given a date by which they needed to land, but otherwise was able to propose its own milestones in-between. There are a few more stipulations in the next CLPS order, because the mission is working with the DOE and ESA, but for the most part Firefly proposes the detailed schedule.

“It’s really hard for NASA to pull back and let the vendors do their thing, especially when it’s human-rated,” Spruce said. “CLPS is a little more on the farther end of that, which is actually really nice, because they’re like, ‘This is your mission.’”

The next milestone before launch is environmental testing, a battery of vibration, acoustic and thermal vacuum tests to ensure the spacecraft is ready for launch. Those tests will take around four months in total, but once they’re complete, Blue Ghost will head to the launch site in Florida. The lander will be the primary payload on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The launch date has been narrowed down to a three-month period in the third quarter; Firefly will have a better idea of the date in May, when it will be given a 30-day launch window.

And then – if all goes to plan – it will journey to the moon, where it will be for the rest of human time.