Published March 21, 2014
Part five in an exclusive, five-part series exploring how America could once again put men on the moon.
The United States has ended two World Wars, pioneered a computer revolution and embarked on the greatest adventure to date by having humans walk on the moon. I want to see us continue in this great leadership role. We as a nation and the world as a whole are better for it.
The next great challenge is a familiar one: The U.S. must lead the world in allowing humans to break the bonds that hold us to our Earth.
If we don’t rise to this challenge, this century may be known as the Chinese Century rather than the second century of America. I have no problem with other countries being major contributors; I just want us to lead.
The development of a lunar base could be a catalyst for lowering our launch cost to space and accelerating the development of automation and robotics. And there are probably countless spinoffs that I did not capture.
If America doesn’t step up to the plate, China’s ambitions for the moon may establish it as the “go-to” nation for space exploration. Many nations of the world privately say they want the moon to be the next step in space exploration -- but they can’t get there on their own. They need a technically savvy and resourceful country to lead.
SpaceX’s heavy launch vehicle could be an interim launch solution to make this vision happen -- and it happens to be at the right price point. NASA spends about $7-8 billion on human space flight today. $2 or 3 billion goes to the International Space Station. NASA’s infrastructure also takes a large chunk, including deep space communication, but that leaves around $3 billion for a lunar initiative. It’s on the low side, but good enough.
This money is currently being spent on infrastructure development that could support a variety of missions, such as the asteroid mission that the administration is currently evaluating. It could also support a lunar initiative if we re-target the moon.
I’d love to go to Mars as well, but as a designer of space vehicles, I know that a lunar initiative is much more feasible from a cost and time standpoint. And offshoots could have profound benefits for more distant forays into space.
Development cost is probably the biggest hurdle. Congress and the administration must be willing to ramp up NASA’s budget by $1 or $2 billion during the development years to make this initiative feasible. Remember that a large chunk of NASA’s annual budget of around $17 billion is to open the doors and do major scientific exploration. A marginal increase of $2 billion would have huge productivity gains.
And NASA would continue to be less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the total U.S. budget.
With the help of the other nations of the world, a much more comprehensive lunar initiative could be planned. But America’s strategic interest should be in the transportation system.
This doesn’t preclude other nations from supplying redundant transportation vehicles.
I ask the president and Congress to re-visit our direction and vision for human space missions to maintain U.S. leadership in space, with all the education and technological advantages that entails. This seems especially pertinent in light of the recent Chinese landing on the moon.
The world of prosperity and freedom shown in many science fiction stories is just around the corner. Let’s unite the countries of the world in this initiative. Let’s make it a reality.