How NASA will get back to the moon: Make it cheaper and unite space sector

NASA Administrator Jim BridenstineJames (Jim) Frederick BridenstineFrom Apollo 11 to Artemis: This time when we go back to the moon, we are going to stay Trump meets with Apollo 11 astronauts to mark moon landing anniversary Trump's NASA administrator talks efforts to return to Moon MORE announced the first nine commercial companies that will become partners for America’s return to the moon. The companies will compete for a share of $2.6 billion to provide transportation services for the space agency to the moon’s surface. The commercial missions will involve small landers that can get to the lunar surface relatively cheaply. 

The companies include: Astrobotic Technology. Inc, Deep Space Systems, Draper, Firefly Aerospace, Inc, Intuitive Machines, LLC, Lockheed Martin Space, Masten Space Systems, Inc. Moon Express and Orbit Beyond.

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NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program is a first step in a process that NASA hopes will see American astronauts on the lunar surface within the next decade. The space agency is partnering with commercial companies partly because it would like to foster an Earth-Moon transportation industry and partly because it is unlikely to get the necessary funding to return to the moon the old-fashioned way.

Of course, many hurdles lie between now and a return to the moon after nearly 40 years. The obvious concerns are funding and congressional politics as well as presidential support in this administration and the next. 

Political fashions change. During George W. Bush’s administration, NASA was headed for the moon, then Mars. During the Obama presidency, the space agency was headed, more or less, directly to Mars. Now, with President TrumpDonald John Trump5 things to know about Boris Johnson Conservatives erupt in outrage against budget deal Trump says Omar will help him win Minnesota MORE in the Oval Office, NASA is headed back to the moon once again before going to Mars. Will the next president be as supportive of returning to the moon? Will the next several Congresses fund the program? The future is cloudy in that regard.

Another problem facing NASA’s return to the moon is that manned lunar missions will take longer to prepare for than robotic ones. NASA proposed 2028 as the year when a human being will next walk on the moon. However, NASA is not the only entity wanting to return to the moon. Aside from the Chinese, who are approaching the matter more ploddingly than the American space agency, SpaceX has designs on both the moon and Mars.

SpaceX has a plan to send its new rocket, formerly known as the BFR but now called the Starship, around the moon with Yusaku Maezawa, a Japanese billionaire, and a group of artists. This voyage may well happen in the mid-2020s, and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announces, “We’re going to the surface of the moon next. Who wants to come with us?”

NASA, then in the midst of its “sustainable” trek back to the moon, will have some decisions to make. Will it ask Musk to include some of its astronauts, placing its approach, with a Gateway space station in lunar orbit and reliance on the huge and expensive Space Launch System, in doubt?

Bridenstine has a ready answer when people ask whether this time America is going back to the moon for real. He suggests that the myriad of commercial partners make Return to the Moon 3.0 different from the last two attempts. The current approach is less expensive and creates more stakeholders who can lean on Congress if it starts to get distracted from the moon mission.

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Bridenstine is modest about another advantage NASA has, this time. Bridenstine overcame major Democratic opposition during his confirmation, led by the soon-to-be former Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonAl Franken says he 'absolutely' regrets resigning Democrats target Florida Hispanics in 2020 Poll: Six Democrats lead Trump in Florida match-ups MORE (D-Fla.). They argued a scientist would be better suited to lead NASA than a lawmaker. But the former congressman’s political experience has proven to be an asset. He has been relentlessly selling the trek back to the moon with the enthusiasm of a young man for whom history is something to be made and not remembered with nostalgia. He is the first NASA administrator to have been born after the first moon landing.

In the meantime, NASA and its commercial partners should get something successfully to the lunar surface before the next presidential election. Such a success would become an applause line for President Trump. A probe constructed by an American company on the surface of the moon in an election year would be a great start, something to be built upon.

Mark 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.”