Published March 20, 2014
Part four in an exclusive, five-part series exploring how America could once again put men on the moon.
The International Space Station is the most complex technological marvel the world has ever built. A floating space base that orbits 240 miles above the planet -- at 17,500 miles per hour -- it shows what humanity can accomplish when we work together.
Simply put, it's remarkable.
The ISS can define a path for humanity to return to the moon. China can choose either to compete or join us. But regardless, the U.S. can lead the initiative.
The U.S. should strategically position itself to own the transportation system that takes humans back to the moon. He who owns this segment has the most leverage for how a lunar base is built ... and how it is used. The fact that we cannot currently launch our own astronauts to the ISS should be fact enough to make this case -- and current events in the Ukraine only amplify this concern.
A system comprising NASA's Orion capsule, SpaceX heavy lift rockets and a special third stage are the planet's best bet for getting back to the moon -- and it's a U.S. system through and through.
The international science community will contribute heavily to an initial mobile base or a permanent settlement for both design and manufacture. The U.S. would build some surface systems on the moon as well, but most of our expenses would be tied up in the transportation system, one that countless veterans and upstarts – new kids on the block – continue to refine and improve.
Boeing, Lockheed, United Launch Alliance and others have established highly reliable hardware with proven track records. Newcomers like SpaceX, Blue Origin and Sierra Nevada, along with smaller companies like Masten, Armadillo Aerospace, Orbital and Ecor, bring passion and fresh insights to the table.
The U.S. is one of only a handful of countries in the world with this level of drive and innovation in space propulsion.
Are travel to the ISS and a moon base (at some point) the only reasons humans go to space? In my opinion, there currently is no business case for sending humans to space for anything else. Virgin Galactic may be selling seats, but it doesn’t go into orbit; it goes just above the outer atmosphere. Besides, tourism will be practical only with a lower launch cost. SpaceX seems to be committed to reducing costs, and a moon program will only help it accomplish this goal.
We the people -- the United States government -- are currently the only customers for space flight. NASA, as our agent, must figure a way to balance those companies that help it, striving for the right mixture of veterans versus new kids. They have already made major strides with their commercial procurement initiatives.
But if NASA makes lowering launch costs its highest priority, escaping the bonds that hold us to Earth will be financially feasible. We don’t do this by controlling the design so much as the frequency -- we are the customer, after all. Two human and two cargo missions a year to the moon would put 12 additional heavy vehicles into the yearly launch manifest -- four rocket launches each for the human mission, two for each cargo mission. This should continue to drive the price down.
The biggest obstacle to returning to the moon is we the people and our government. Congress and the administration worry annually about the cost of a lunar program and agency. They like to have consistent year-over-year funding with small, predictable increases for inflation. But life doesn’t work that way. With a new project, costs start off slowly and ramp up to a peak year before trailing off at the end of design. The government must be willing to ramp up funding in the peak design years or risk carrying a standing army of design engineers in the early years. This is the main reason many large government projects escalate in cost.
Contractors should be given very strong incentives to minimize the cost of a lunar mission, even if this drives up budgets in the early years. This will ultimately drive down the total program cost, because the cost of flying your missions will be at the lowest possible level.
To some degree this was done with the ISS commercial launch service procurements, but those were much lower-scale procurements.
If Congress budgets accordingly, it can be done.
In addition, Congress would need to resist the urge to force pet parts of the program to a particular state or NASA center. This also can be a huge cost escalator. Just give NASA the goal to spread the wealth.