Yesterday, NexGen Space LLC published a hefty study detailing a plan to settle on the moon within the next twenty years. The study was funded, in part, by NASA's Emerging Space office, and was reviewed by a team of former NASA astronauts and deputies, as well as private space corporations. The report offers a solution to a problem that has been nagging NASA for years: namely, how to put people back on the moon on a budget.
Back in 2004, President George W. Bush announced a "new vision" for NASA which included a return to the moon, in part as a stepping to Mars. "Using the Crew Exploration Vehicle," Bush said at the time, "we will undertake extended human missions to the moon as early as 2015, with the goal of living and working there for increasingly extended periods." He continued:
"Returning to the moon is an important step for our space program. Establishing an extended human presence on the moon could vastly reduce the costs of further space exploration, making possible ever more ambitious missions… Its soil contains raw materials that might be harvested and processed into rocket fuel or breathable air."
NASA heeded the president's call and, in 2005, published the "Exploration Systems Architecture Study," which described, in more than 700 pages, the plan to return humans to the moon. The cost: $104 billion. In The Space Review, Jeff Foust looked at 58 pieces reacting to the plan, and found that that the high cost captured much of the public's imagination. "It should be little surprise," he wrote that, "the cost of the plan… weighed heavily in their opposition."
The plan stalled. In 2009, 40 years after the historic lunar landing, Space.com discussed the challenges faced by NASA's now defunct Constellation program, which hoped to send people for month-long stints on the moon. Again, the project's cost presented a problem. The head of Constellation told Space.com at the time that "The technologies that we need to do the job are largely in hand…in terms of the challenge, it's really a fiscal challenge—the amount of money that the nation can afford to spend."
Now, six years later, the researchers behind yesterday's study say they've found a way to reduce that $100-billion figure by a whopping 90 percent, by pulling in private businesses.
The authors argue that the years of partnerships with the likes of SpaceX, which delivers cargo to the International Space Station, have set a precedent that could lift much of the burden of the cost from the government's shoulders. That partnership could make the journey to Mars cheaper as well. And, say the authors, protect us from a hypothetical attack on future lunar colonies:
"It is possible that a lunar architecture could close the business case for a commercial reusable launch vehicle (RLV) that could substantially eliminate the United States vulnerability to Pearl Harbor style attacks in space."
And help us fulfill our manifest destiny:
"A permanent settlement on the Moon, based on free enterprise and democracy, will
be the ultimate 'shining city on the hill'. The establishment of a sustainable, affordable, and permanent human base on the Moon, led by America and in partnership with free-market, democratic nations from around the world, will send an unequivocal positive message to the rest of the planet about American leadership, and the long-term future of democracy and freedom."
Your move, Elon.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.