In the wake of the National Space Council’s first meeting, NASA says it has been told to draw up plans to send humans to the moon “for long-term exploration and utilization,” followed by trips to Mars and other interplanetary destinations.
That means moon bases are back in style.
But what kind of moon base? NASA’s current vision for space exploration goes only so far as to consider putting a Deep Space Gateway in lunar orbit. It’s basically a space station that could serve as a platform for monitoring robotic operations on the lunar surface, or for sending astronauts onward to Mars.
During the Obama administration, NASA saw lunar settlement as the purview of commercial ventures and international partners. The European Space Agency, for example, has its own vision for a “Moon Village,” and Bigelow Aerospace has floated the idea of putting expandable commercial habitats on the moon.
Now NASA will include moon base concepts in its own blueprint for beyond-Earth exploration. Fortunately, this isn’t virgin territory: NASA could turn to the work it was doing a decade ago, the last time moon bases were in style.
Back then, the space agency was working out the plans for lunar settlements that would be built once Americans returned to the moon as part of Project Constellation, backed by President George W. Bush.
Boeing and Lockheed Martin were among the potential industry partners, along with Caterpillar (for dirt-moving), Canada’s Norcat (for lunar mining) and ILC Dover (which was vying with Bigelow Aerospace to build habitats).
The favored site was to be the moon’s south polar region — where the rims of craters could provide nearly constant views of Earth, and where the permanently shadowed bottoms of craters could harbor water ice. That ice could be used to produce drinkable water, breathable oxygen and rocket propellants.
At the time, NASA envisioned starting the construction job sometime after Constellation’s first moon landing in 2020, and having a habitat ready for six-month tours of duty by 2025.
“The intent is to lay down the foundation for a permanent presence on the moon by whoever wants to be there,” Boeing’s Dallas Bienhoff told me back then.
So what happened? The bottom line, that’s what. The cost estimate for Project Constellation rose beyond $100 billion, and that didn’t even include the cost of building the moon base. In 2009, a White House panel of independent space experts determined that the plan couldn’t be done on NASA’s budget.
Now, NASA is forgetting about the asteroid and going back to the back-to-the-moon aspirations, as part of a grander plan to expand human presence in the solar system under American leadership. It’s way too early, however, to come up with a price tag for moon missions, let alone a moon base.
Today, business is booming at SpaceX, due to its low-cost approach to rocket launches and retrievals. Musk’s net worth has topped $20 billion, and he’s talking up monster missions to the moon and Mars, leading to Red Planet settlement within the next decade.
SpaceX is increasing the competitive pressure on Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK and Northrop Grumman, NASA’s longstanding partners in the space exploration business.
The cost equation for moon trips, and for a moon base, may well look better now than it did in 2007, thanks in part to Musk and SpaceX. Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture could eventually come in for some of the credit as well if its Blue Moon lunar lander gets off the ground.
However, no plan for space exploration is exempt from Grissom’s Law, which was attributed to Mercury astronaut Gus Grissom in “The Right Stuff,” Tom Wolfe’s novel about the early space effort: “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.”
Once the cost estimate for building a moon base gets out there, will the White House, Congress and the electorate go along? Or will the idea give rise to political scoffing and late-night lampooning, as it did when Newt Gingrich (who’s also apparently back in style) made his moon base suggestion during the 2012 presidential campaign?