Why NASA might outsource the return to the moon

Why NASA might outsource the return to the moon

Recently Gwynne Shotwell, the president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, suggested that the United States government might want to help finance the BFR, commonly known as the Big Falcon Rocket. The BFR is the huge spaceship that SpaceX founder Elon Musk proposes to build to colonize Mars. However, at a conference in Luxembourg, Shotwell suggested that the massive, reusable rocket would also be useful for launching big military payloads and for landing on the moon.

In the meantime, Blue Origin, the primary business rival to SpaceX, run by Jeff Bezos, proposed that NASA partner with it in a venture called Blue Moon to deliver cargo and perhaps eventually people to the lunar surface. Blue Origin will soon have its heavy-lift launch vehicle, New Glenn, operational. Other companies, such as Moon Express and Astrobotic, are developing lunar landing businesses.

With all of this private sector activity directed at the moon, the question arises, what if NASA were to outsource the return to the moon?


A big argument for outsourcing lunar exploration came recently in the form of a study conducted by Edgar Zapata at the Kennedy Space Center of NASA’s current commercial space partnerships, the Commercial Orbital Transportation Systems (COTS) program, and the Commercial Crew program. The conclusion of the study is that NASA has saved hundreds of millions of dollars by going to COTS rather than using the space shuttle to carry cargo to and from the International Space Station. Those savings are going to increase once the Commercial Crew spacecraft, the SpaceX Dragon, and the Boeing Starliner become operational in about a year.

The current plan of the Trump administration is to focus NASA’s efforts on a return to the moon before embarking on sending people to Mars. The effort has a lot of arguments in favor of it, economic, political and scientific. However, going back to the moon is bound to be expensive. Considering that NASA saved and will save a lot of money by going commercial for transportation between Earth and Earth orbit, the case for a similar arrangement for going back to the moon is compelling.

The idea would be for NASA and whichever international partners would care to join in a return to the moon effort to create what might be called the "commercial lunar program." The CL program would be divided into three parts, cargo to the moon, people to the moon, and then, finally, a lunar base.

As with COTS and Commercial Crew, various private companies would put out proposals for accomplishing each step, and NASA and its partners would pick the top ones to move forward. The effort would culminate in a lunar base that would mine resources, like lunar water, for rocket fuel, provide a base for exploration and science, and serve as a destination for tourism. If the conclusions of the Zapata study can be applied to a moon effort, tens of billions of dollars might be saved.

The question also arises, what to do with the Orion deep-space craft and the Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket that NASA has been developing in-house for a Mars effort, which could instead be applied toward going to the moon?

The Orion and the SLS were good ideas when Congress mandated them, to preserve some kind of deep-space capability in the wake of President Obama’s cancellation of the Bush-era Constellation program. No commercial alternatives existed when the mandate was made.

However, the Orion and the SLS have proven to be expensive to develop and will be costly to operate. The case for both systems diminishes, the more likely it is that comparable commercial alternatives could become reality. On the other hand, the Orion and the SLS are popular with Congress, and canceling them when they are a year to a year and a half from taking off would be politically daunting.

However, commercializing the Orion and the Space Launch System might be a viable alternative. The expense of operating them in competition with the SpaceX BFR and other commercial spacecraft might prove to be too challenging, Even so, NASA is currently soliciting ideas to make the Space Launch System cheaper to build and to fly. 

The last race to the moon was between nations, the United States and the Soviet Union. The next one may well be between private companies, with NASA officiating and benefiting. The prospect of such a competition is a compelling one.

Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as The Man from Mars: The Asteroid Mining Caper. He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.  He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times, and the Washington Post, among other venues.