Masten Space Systems, a NASA moon landing contractor, files for bankruptcy

A prototype vertical takeoff/vertical landing demonstrator undergoing testing at Masten Space Systems. Credit: Masten Space Systems

Masten Space Systems, a private California company focused on developing lunar and planetary landing vehicles, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Thursday after recent layoffs and funding problems.

Founded in 2004, Masten won a contract with NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program in April 2020 to develop and fly a robotic lunar lander to touch down near the moon’s south pole. At the time, Masten said its privately-developed XL-1 lander carrying nine NASA-sponsored science and technology instruments was scheduled to reach the moon by December 2022.

But that timeline proved too aggressive, and Masten last year announced the launch of its first lunar mission — called Masten Mission One — would be delayed nearly a year to November 2023. The Mojave, California-based company blamed supply chain issues and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic for the delay.

Masten rapidly expanded its workforce to meet the requirements of NASA’s contract, by far the largest project in the company’s history. But financial problems forced Masten to furlough much of its staff this summer. The recent trouble was capped by the Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing Thursday.

The value of NASA’s contract with Masten grew from $75.9 million to $81.3 million since April 2020. NASA said it has paid Masten $66.1 million so far under the CLPS contract, but Masten was expected to find other customers to fly payloads on the lander to cover the remaining cost of the mission.

“NASA received notification its payloads slated for delivery aboard Masten Mission One may be impacted by Masten business operations,” NASA said in a statement. “The agency is working closely with the company to ensure that any potential changes comply with Federal Acquisition Regulations. In the event Masten Space Systems is unable to complete its task order, NASA will manifest its payloads on other CLPS flights.”

If Masten backs out of its NASA moon landing contract, it would be the second time a company has withdrawn from a CLPS task order. OrbitBeyond returned its CLPS task order to NASA in July 2019, two months after receiving the contract. Including Masten’s first moon mission, NASA has eight CLPS task orders currently on contract.

Masten’s XL-1 lunar lander was under contract with NASA to deliver science and technology payloads to the moon’s south pole.
Credit: Masten Space Systems

The CLPS program is designed to allow NASA to deliver science and technology demonstration payloads to the moon on commercial vehicles, at lower cost than possible on government-managed missions. The program is also intended to foster development of a commercial market for lunar transportation services, similar to the model NASA used to develop commercial crew and cargo transportation for the International Space Station.

Masten is one of 14 companies in NASA’s CLPS contractor pool. Each is eligible for a CLPS task order as NASA solicits proposals for missions to carry payloads to the moon.

NASA currently has three CLPS task orders awarded to Houston-based Intuitive Machines, two to Astrobotic of Pittsburgh, one mission to Firefly Aerospace of Cedar Park, Texas, one to Massachusetts-based Draper, and one to Masten.

Masten’s bankruptcy filing lists SpaceX as its largest creditor. Masten selected SpaceX to launch its XL-1 lunar lander mission, and owes the launch provider $4.6 million. Multiple other aerospace companies also have claims to Masten’s debt.

Masten estimated its assets and debts are each worth between $10 million and $50 million.

Intuitive Machines, one of Masten’s competitors in the CLPS marketplace, will receive first rights to Masten’s launch agreement with SpaceX through a “stalking horse asset purchase agreement,” according to the bankruptcy filing.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.