President Trump gets how to commercialize space — Does NASA?

President Trump gets how to commercialize space — Does NASA?
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpSchiff: Surveillance warrant docs show that Nunes memo 'misrepresented and distorted these applications' Chicago detention facility under investigation following allegations of abuse of migrant children Ex-Trump aide: Surveillance warrants are 'complete ignorance' and 'insanity' MORE raised some eyebrows at a recent cabinet meeting, featuring a display of rocket models, where he praised commercial space entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk. The president waxed eloquent about how impressed he was about the recent launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy, which featured the landing of the two strap-on boosters. 

“I don't know if you saw last — with Elon — with the rocket booster where they're coming back down. To me, that was more amazing than watching the rocket go up, because I've never seen that before. Nobody's seen that before, where they're saving the boosters, and they came back without wings, without anything. They landed so beautifully. So we're really at the forefront and we're doing it in a very private manner.'' 

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Trump also noted that the Falcon Heavy cost much less than other rockets. The statement must have caused some heartburn for the NASA officials who were present. The centerpiece of the space agency’s return to the moon program is the Space Launch System, which has cost billions to develop, will cost at a minimum $1 billion per launch and will only fly once a year.

 

Some space policy experts wonder why NASA should bear the expense of the SLS when the Falcon Heavy, not to mention the upcoming BFR (Big Falcon Rocket) and the Blue Origin New Glenn will cost less and fly more often.

The irony is that NASA does understand commercial space when it comes to vehicles that land on the moon. Here is how the space agency intends to develop such spacecraft: “NASA plans to enlist a series of commercial robotic landers and rockets to meet lunar payload delivery and service needs.”

NASA is accepting proposals from “all domestic commercial providers” this spring for “commercial lunar payload service contracts for surface delivery as early as 2019.” The agency is also pursing human landers about the size of a smart car. 

NASA plans to gather industry input for possible partnerships on lander development, noting, “the first of two mid-size commercial missions to the Moon for NASA could come as early as 2022.”

NASA already has a lot of experience dealing with commercial lunar companies, such as Moon Express, Astrobotic, and Masten Space Systems, under the Lunar CATALYST program. Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is also interested in providing lunar landing services for both NASA and commercial partners.

The first American landings on the moon in decades will be conducted by one or more of these companies, paid for partly by NASA, carrying both space agency and commercial payloads.

Meanwhile, Musk has boasted that the BFR will begin suborbital testing next year at his new spaceport near Boca Chica, Texas. Orbital flights are scheduled for three to four years hence. Soon after, Musk has suggested he will be ready to shoot for the moon.

The first person to walk on the lunar surface in half a century will likely fly on a commercial spacecraft. The new lunar landers will be developed for far less money than if NASA attempted to develop them in-house in the traditional manner. The space agency recognizes this fact and has reached out accordingly to the commercial space sector.

It is, however, too bad that NASA has yet to get its mind around the same principle where it comes to launch vehicles. If it cannot, then humanity’s return to the moon will come later and be more expensive than would otherwise be the case.

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 Moon, Mars and Beyond. 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.