By 2024, NASA plans to return to the moon, 2028 at the outside.

To help get it there, and keep its astronauts alive when they arrive, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has been handing out contracts right and left, and promising to spend $20 billion or more on the effort, money that could go directly into the coffers of some of America's most exciting "space companies."

But not all NASA contracts involve the exchange of money -- at least not at first.

Moon visible in a starry sky over trees

Image source: Getty Images.

Late last month, NASA announced its latest batch of partnerships, tapping 13 separate space companies to help "mature industry-developed space technologies" for the agency "and help maintain American leadership in space" through a type of government contract known as a "Space Act Agreement." 

Under these agreements, NASA intends to provide valuable "expertise, facilities, hardware and software" to its partners "at no cost." The goal: to "bring new capabilities to market that could benefit future NASA missions" -- for which NASA will pay.

Some of the companies winning partnership agreements are names you'll have heard of, others not. But one and all, they're companies worth watching as potential investments. As the space race ramps up, and NASA money pours in, the lesser known names could conceivably IPO, and the bigger names will get even bigger.

The usual suspects

Speaking of "big names getting bigger," let's begin with a few names you already know. NASA tapped four big publicly traded companies to partner with it on "maturing" the technologies needed to return to the moon. Two of them, Aerojet Rocketdyne (NYSE:AJRD) and Spirit AeroSystems (NYSE:SPR), received one contract apiece.

Aerojet will use "innovative processes and materials" to "design and manufacture a lightweight rocket engine combustion chamber" for future spacecraft. Meanwhile, Spirit AeroSystems will use "friction stir welding" techniques developed in the construction of NASA's Space Launch System "to improve the durability of low-cost reusable rockets."

Two others -- Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT) and Maxar Technologies (NYSE:MAXR) -- were even luckier, winning a pair of contracts each.

Lockheed Martin will test "materials" assembled using additive manufacturing (i.e. 3D printing) "to improve the design of spacecraft that operate in high-temperature environments." And moving a bit off its usual beaten track, Lockheed will also attempt to test how robotics can be used to "help NASA harvest plants on future platforms in deep space."

Maxar, already hired to build the key power and propulsion element for NASA's planned Lunar Gateway space station, will do further power-related work helping NASA "test lightweight solar cells for flexible solar panels." And Maxar will help build "a deployable, semi-rigid radio antenna" that can be packed up tight on a rocketship, then unfolded and deployed in-orbit, helping to solve two key problems with getting space parts from Earth to orbit -- size constraints and cost -- by using transport space more efficiently.

The known unknowns

So right there, you have four name-brand companies, each publicly traded and available for investment today. In our next batch of companies, we turn to firms that are becoming better known as "space companies," but remain privately owned at present. We don't know when, or even if, any of these companies will ever go public. For that matter, because their financials are not publicly disclosed, we don't even know if they'd be worth investing in even if they did go public some day.

But just in case they do, let's take a look:

Blue Origin: Jeff Bezos's pioneering space launch company won a total of three NASA contracts last month, more than any other company on the list. Blue Origin will (1) work on a navigation and guidance system for moon landings, (2) continue its own work on a fuel cell power system for the company's Blue Moon lander, and (3) "mature high-temperature materials for liquid rocket engine nozzles that could be used on lunar landers."

SpaceX (headed by Bezos's tech giant rival Elon Musk) won contracts to perfect the process of in-orbit transfers of propellant -- necessary for its own refuelable Starship -- and also research the procedure for vertically landing large rockets on the Moon.

Finally, privately held Sierra Nevada Corporation will "capture infrared images of their Dream Chaser spacecraft as it reenters Earth's atmosphere" (presumably to see how it deals with friction heat), and also work with NASA to come up with "a method to recover the upper stage of a rocket using a deployable decelerator."

Unknown unknowns

And finally, we come to the new NASA partners, about which we know almost nothing at all. These include names like:

  • Advanced Space of Boulder, Colorado
  • Vulcan Wireless of Carlsbad, California
  • Aerogel Technologies of Boston
  • Anasphere of Bozeman, Montana
  • Bally Ribbon Mills of Bally, Pennsylvania
  • and Colorado Power Electronics Inc. of Fort Collins, Colorado

They'll be working on everything from "lunar navigation technologies" (Advanced Space) to "compact hydrogen generators" (Anasphere) to testing "a new seamless weave for a mechanically deployable carbon fabric heat shield" (Bally Ribbon).

The more progress they make, the closer NASA will get to returning to the moon. And the more that project advances, the sooner all 13 of these companies can expect to begin winning part of NASA's $20 billion trove worth of moon loot.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.