NASA needs to commit to a permanent lunar base

NASA via Associated Press, file

Recently, NASA held a presentation announcing the second round of Human Landing System selections to develop a second lunar lander to supplement the SpaceX Lunar Starship to take astronauts from lunar orbit to the lunar surface. However, in his opening remarks, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson noted that Artemis will consist of a series of expeditions to the moon in the decade following the planned return to the moon in 2025, to be followed by the first expedition to Mars in the late 2030s or early 2040s.

Some sharp-eyed people noticed one thing that seemed missing from Nelson’s remarks. Laura Seward Forczyk, a space consultant and author, noted on Twitter with some dismay, “I keep thinking about sustainability. Artemis is supposed to be sustainable. Lunar base, tech testing, learn to live & work on another world, profitable for commercial partners, international… Nothing about 1 short mission per year for a decade sounds sustainable.”

In all the iterations of the return to the moon, dating back to the 1989 version proposed by President George H. W. Bush, the goal has always been to establish a lunar base. It would become a center of science, exploration and commercea symbol for what the world community could do if it chose to work together.

Very likely the scenario outlined by Nelson stems from the cost estimate for each Space Launch System (SLS)/Orion mission at $4.1 billion. Even under the most generous congressional appropriations, NASA could not afford to mount more than one lunar mission per year, not enough to sustain any kind of a permanently crewed lunar base.

The latest Artemis manifest includes a pressurized lunar rover to be delivered by Artemis VII in 2030 and a surface habitat to be delivered by Artemis VIII in 2031. But unless Artemis crews are going to spend a full year on the lunar surface, these would only be used periodically by lunar astronauts for however long their missions last.

Clearly, if the United States and its international and commercial allies propose to develop a permanent lunar base, they must find a way to take crews and cargos to and from the lunar surface that is cheaper and more frequent than the Orion/SLS system.

One idea would be to outfit the SpaceX Starship Human Landing System to take astronauts from Earth orbit to the lunar surface. After the Starship HLS’s fuel tanks are topped off in Earth orbit, a Crew Dragon could launch with the crew, dock with the Starship and transfer the crew. The Starship could take the crew and its 100 metric tons of cargo to the lunar surface.

Another idea, once proposed by aerospace experts and authors Homer Hickam and Robert Zubrin, was to outfit a SpaceX Crew Dragon for deep space travel and launch it to lunar orbit on a Falcon Heavy where it would dock with a HLS. The HLS would take the astronauts to the moon’s surface. An analysis of the idea suggests that the numbers are doable.

The advantage of either alternative is that unlike the SLS/Orion system, they would be able to launch to the moon more frequently, perhaps two to four times a year. Having astronauts stay on the lunar surface for three to six months would be more practical than a year-long stay. And these more frequent expeditions can be carried out for less money than a single annual one using the Space Launch System.

If NASA is unable to execute this course change on its own, perhaps Congress could help the space agency do it. Congress should write language mandating a permanent lunar base in the next NASA authorization bill.

The advantage of a permanent lunar base, besides the additional science and technology development it could enable, is that its growth can be open ended. As more Earth-to-moon transportation options become available and In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) technologies can be developed, the larger the original base can grow until it becomes a settlement. ISRU can include mining water ice, extracting oxygen from lunar regolith and growing food.

The lunar settlement could grow to something more than a science research base. Lunar miners would be able to use it as a base of operations to extract minerals from the moon and transport them to microgravity factories in Earth orbit. New industries and new wealth could be created. All in all, the moon’s economic development is a more compelling vision than Apollo 2.0.

Mark R. Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. 

Tags Bill Nelson lunar base Mark R. Whittington Moon Space Space exploration SpaceX Technology
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