So much for the theory that NASA always favors "incumbents" when handing out contracts.

In its latest competition to award three Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS, part of the Artemis moon program ) contracts to deliver payloads to the moon, America's space agency did anything but round up the usual suspects. Instead, NASA passed over the first private company to ever receive U.S. government approval to land on the moon, Moon Express. It skipped past back-from-the-dead Firefly Aerospace, which just signed an agreement to develop its own launch site at Cape Canaveral. And it bypassed aerospace giant Lockheed Martin (LMT 0.22%), one of its longest-serving space contractors.

Instead, NASA alighted upon three virtual unknowns -- and picked them as its chosen contractors for moon runs.

Artist's rendering of a small lander on the moon with Earth in the background.

Image source: NASA.

Introducing a few unusual suspects

Who are these lucky companies, you ask? You've met them once before, when we ran down the list of the nine finalists competing for CLPS back in January. In alphabetical order, they include:

  • Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic Technology, with its Griffin-class lunar lander boasting a 400-kg payload to the lunar surface and a smaller Peregrine-class lander with a 90-kg payload.
  • Houston-based Intuitive Machines offers a "Nova-C" lunar lander with a 100-kg payload capacity and also a "Universal Re-entry Vehicle" to "return payloads from LEO [low earth orbit] and Lunar Environments."
  • And Edison, N.J.-based Orbit Beyond, which says it plans to put its Z-01 lander on the moon before the end of September 2020 -- with up to a 40-kg payload.

None of these companies are publicly traded. Fact is, none of them are very well publicly known. S&P Global Market Intelligence, perhaps one of the most comprehensive sources of information on corporations operating in the U.S. (or elsewhere), has no information at all about Orbit Beyond or Intuitive Machines. As for Astrobotic Technology, about all S&P Global can tell us is that it's a 12-year-old company funded by seed capital.

Pretty soon, though, these companies should be veritably swimming in NASA cash. As the agency announced last week, it's awarding Astrobotic $79.5 million to deliver as many as 14 separate payloads to the moon by July 2021. Intuitive Machines will attempt to deliver up to five payloads to the moon by that same deadline and receive $77 million for its trouble.

Orbit Beyond will do even better, receiving $97 million to put four payloads on the moon by September 2020.

None of the three companies builds rockets -- which could make getting their landers to the moon problematic. Astrobotic, though, clarifies that it, at least, will be sending its landers to the moon on "regular ride-sharing missions." Thus, it appears these companies will be loading their landers aboard rockets built by other companies (yet to be named, in contracts yet to be awarded).

The usual suspects return by the back door

And here's where things could get interesting for investors. As already mentioned, Lockheed Martin didn't win a CLPS contract per se. But as one half of the United Launch Alliance consortium that builds Atlas V rockets, it still has a good chance of getting tapped (and paid) to help these companies that did win to reach their goal.

And that's not the only way Lockheed and its publicly traded peers could profit.

Astrobotic counts both United Launch Alliance (i.e., Boeing and Lockheed) and Airbus (majority owner of ULA rival Arianespace) among its backers. Intuitive Machines numbers both Lockheed and Ball Aerospace among its "customers and affiliates" (they don't say who is which, though).

Of the three winners, only Orbit Beyond has no "name" partners backing its play -- but even so, it looks to me like Boeing, Lockheed, and other marquee space players still get at least two chances out of three to participate vicariously in NASA's Artemis project -- and the money that comes with it and the money from any missions to follow.

Despite "losing" the headline contract, Lockheed Martin shareholders could still end up crying all the way to the bank.