According to the Washington Post, Donald Trump wants to make a splash in space. And he apparently wants to make that splash by orbiting the Moon.
Orbiting the Moon? Merely circling it? What a comedown from America’s past high…landing twelve humans on the lunar surface. But there is a way to outdo America’s past achievements. And to accomplish this in a shorter time with a smaller budget than the Trump team imagines.
It’s a way to get to the Moon and to stay there permanently. A way to begin this process immediately and to achieve moon landings in less than four years.
Turn to private industry. Turn to two companies in particular—Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Robert Bigelow’s Bigelow Aerospace. Why? Because the approach that NASA’s acting administrator Robert Lightfoot is pushing won’t allow a Moon landing.
Lightfoot’s problem lies in the two pieces of NASA equipment he wants to work with: a rocket that’s too expensive to fly and is years from completion—the Space Launch System; and a capsule that’s far from ready to carry humans—the Orion. Neither the SLS nor the Orion are able to land on the Moon. Let me repeat that. Once these pieces of super-expensive equipment reach the moon’s vicinity, they cannot land.
Who is able to land on the lunar surface? Elon Musk and Robert Bigelow. Musk’s rockets—the Falcon and the soon-to-be-launched Falcon Heavy—are built to take off and land. So far their landing capabilities have been used to ease them down on earth. But the same technology, with a few tweaks, gives them the ability to land payloads on the surface of the Moon. Including humans. What’s more, SpaceX’s upcoming seven-passenger Dragon 2 capsule has already demonstrated its ability to gentle itself down to earth’s surface. In other words, with a few modifications and equipment additions, Falcon rockets and Dragon capsules could be made Moon-ready.
There’s more. Within the space community, there is a wide disenchantment with “flags and footprints” missions. Flags and footprints missions are those like the Apollo landings in which astronauts land, plant a flag, hit a golf ball, then disappear for 45 years. Major segments of the space community want every future landing to add to a permanent infrastructure in the sky. And that’s within our grasp thanks to Robert Bigelow.
In 2000, Bigelow purchased a technology that Congress had ordered NASA to abandon: inflatable habitats. For the last sixteen years Bigelow and his company, Bigelow Aerospace, have been advancing inflatable habitat technology. Inflatable technology lets you squeeze a housing unit into a small package, carry it by rocket to a space destination, then blow it up like a balloon. Since the spring of 2016, Bigelow, a real estate developer and founder of the Budget Suites of America hotel chain, has had an inflatable habitat acting as a spare room at the International Space Station 220 miles above your head and mine. And Bigelow’s been developing something far more ambitious—an inflatable Moon Base, that would use three of his 330-cubic-meter B330 modules. What’s more, Bigelow has been developing a landing vehicle to bring his modules gently down to the Moon’s surface.
Then there’s a wild card—Jeff Bezos. Bezos’ Blue Origin rockets already have a well-tested capacity to take off, land, then take off again. Which means that in the next few years Bezos’ rockets, too, could land cargoes and passengers on the Moon.
If NASA ditched the Space Launch System and the Orion, it would free up three billion dollars a year. That budget could speed the Moon-readiness of Bigelow’s landing vehicles, not to mention SpaceX’s Falcon rockets and could pay for lunar enhancements to manned Dragon 2 capsules. In fact, three billion dollars a year is far greater than what Bigelow and Musk would need. That budget would also allow NASA to bring Jeff Bezos into the race. And it would let NASA refocus its energy on earth-orbit and lunar-surface refueling stations…plus rovers, lunar construction equipment, and devices to turn lunar ice into rocket fuel, drinkable water, and breathable oxygen. Not to mention machines to turn lunar dust and rock into building materials.
This new Moon program could be achieved within NASA’s current budget. In fact, members of the group I run—the Space Development Steering Committee—estimate the total cost of what I’ve described (Moon landings plus a permanent moon base) at ten billion dollars. That’s just three years’ worth of the money currently being funneled into the SLS and the Orion.
Also speaking in the Washington Post, President Trump says he wants to send “a clear signal to the Chinese that the U.S. intends to retain dominance in space.” Looping the loop around the moon without touching down would demonstrate only one thing: America’s fecklessness. But landing Americans on the lunar surface for long stays at an American base would send a message of a dramatically different kind.
If NASA deep-sixed the Space Launch System and the Orion, then bought Moon-landing services from SpaceX, Bigelow, and, possibly, Blue Origin, America could land its citizens on the Moon in less than four years. But this time, thanks to Bigelow’s Moon Base, Americans be there to stay.