NASA Has Big Plans for the Moon — and Big Competition
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Check back in a decade, though, and the scene may be radically different. In last week’s inaugural meeting of the revived National Space Council, Vice President Mike Pence vowed that “we will return NASA astronauts to the moon,” spurred by scientific, commercial, and national security interests. His comments formalized the moon-first agenda laid out by U.S. Representative Jim Bridenstine, the new nominee for NASA administrator.
In Bridenstine’s vision, the moon will soon host a bustling development of mining operations, robot geologists, video broadcasters, and a small but growing human outpost — all supported by a mix of commercial and government interests. That’s a bold claim, considering there has been only one soft landing on the moon in the last four decades.
But Bridenstine is hardly alone in his starry optimism
This entrepreneurial approach to space exploration mirrors a consensus view emerging within the Trump administration, traditional aerospace contractors like Boeing and Lockheed Martin, and upstarts like SpaceX.
Blended in with the new commercial competition for the moon are old flavors of national rivalry. Bridenstine is none too pleased that the solitary lunar touchdown since the 1970s was performed not by the U.S. — but by China.
Russia is in the game too, teaming up with the European Space Agency (ESA) on a set of four planned probes that would pick up where Soviet explorations left off in the 1970s. This Luna series would include landers, a lunar-satellite data link, and a surface drilling operation.
All this activity is fueled by two recent scientific discoveries.
In the mid-1990s, researchers identified mountains and ridges near both of the moon’s poles that bask in continuous sunshine. Placing solar panels near their peaks would neatly solve the problem of how to power a robot — or a human colony — during the two-week-long lunar night.
Even more exciting, space probes recently determined that deeply shadowed craters in the same polar regions contain significant reserves of ice. The implications are huge: Lunar water could be mined for use by residents of a moon base. It could also be easily processed to create hydrogen and oxygen for rocket fuel.
NASA presumably would be the main customer for the water, but private customers might be interested too.
“We're going to build a propellant economy in space,” says Charles Miller, a longtime space entrepreneur and an advisor to the Trump administration. “We’ll put a fuel station there, and that will drive a virtuous economic cycle in which everybody competes to be the lowest-cost provider of propellant.”
Mining operations and fuel depots could be automated, but the return to the moon almost inevitably will include human explorers. On the government side, a leaked Trump administration “action plan” proposes bringing astronauts back to the lunar surface ahead of the planned decommissioning of the International Space Station by 2028.
In the private sector, aerospace titans Elon Musk of SpaceX and Jeff Bezos of Blue Origin have floated their own concepts for sending humans to the moon. Notably, both companies participated in the National Space Council meeting.
Last March, Bezos sent the Trump team a seven-page white paper outlining an Amazon-style space-delivery service that would ferry equipment to a water-bearing lunar crater.
Those deliveries might support one of Miller's hoped-for fuel stations, but Bezos also imagines them as a prelude to a permanent settlement.
The main deterrent to establishing such an outpost is the price tag (Apollo cost about $150 billion in current dollars). Miller co-authored a 2015 study concluding that private competition, off-the-shelf hardware, and targeted goals could drastically reduce both costs and delays.
Unlike mining outposts and XPrize pathfinders, a moon base seems too big and complex for any single company or nation to operate alone. More plausible would be an International moon station, possibly structured as a public-private partnership. The looming challenge, then, may be finding a way to reconcile such a well-zoned sanctuary with a pioneering Wild West of commercial and non-profit lunar experiments.
“We have a list of all the actors who are interested in the moon,” Woerner says. “We are connecting them so they can benefit from each other. We are enablers, facilitators, brokers.”
Bridenstine counters that leadership is the more pressing need: “The United States of America is the only nation that can protect space for the free world and responsible entities.”
Resolving these arguments will be key for the long-term development of the moon. But the fact that such points are even being disputed signals that we’re on the verge of a lunar revolution.
October 12, 2017
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