2015 ended and 2016 began with the #Space program on the cusp of tremendous and potentially very positive change. Congress gave NASA a great Christmas present in the form of a $1.3 billion budget increase. The perennial argument between advocates of commercial space and supporters of space exploration was settled. The commercial crew program, designed to build NASA-funded, commercially operated spacecraft that will return crewed space flight capability to the United States was fully funded for the first time. The heavy lift Space Launch System, the center of NASA’s plans to explore deep space, also received lavish amounts of money. Planetary Science and even Earth Science, have gotten generous amounts of money. A mission to Europa will now land on that icy moon of Jupiter in the 2020s.
However, events happening outside of NASA promise to change the trajectory of space exploration for years to come. Around the time that the space agency was getting the good news, another government agency was getting into the space business in a big way. The FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) recommended that the agency’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation begin talks with the European Space Agency to facilitate the participation of American companies in the “Moon Village” concept. The “Moon Village” was first proposed by the ESA’s new Director-General Johann-Dietrich Woerner as a way for various national space agencies to co-locate habitats on the moon for mutual support and cooperation. Woerner is said to be open to the participation of commercial companies, such as the lunar mining company Moon Express.
Moon Express, as well as companies such as Planetary Resources, which are keen to mine asteroids, got some other tremendous news when Congress passed and President Obama signed a commercial space law that granted American companies the right to own any minerals and other materials that they mine in space. While the provision has been denounced by some non-American space law experts, it has been hailed by commercial space advocates as a breakthrough that could jump-start a trillion-dollar industry.
Where does all this leave NASA? The space agency is on the “Journey to Mars.” As the result of President Obama’s directive, NASA is not going back to the moon anytime soon. All that international governments and commercial companies who want to return to the moon can expect from the space agency are words of encouragement and best wishes.
The anti-moon stance is becoming increasingly untenable, however. Last summer, a think tank called NextGen Space, released a NASA-funded study that suggested the moon boots could be on the lunar soil by the second term of the next president for just a fraction of the cost of the Journey to Mars, using commercial space systems which, thanks to the recent feet by SpaceX in landing a rocket, will be a lot cheaper to operate. MIT added that a lunar base, with access to water thought to be hiding in dark craters, could be used to create rocket fuel. That rocket fuel would greatly reduce the cost and complexity of the Journey to Mars, increasing the likelihood of astronauts making a small step and a giant leap on the Red Planet in 20 years or so.
All of those developments, the boost in NASA’s budget and the improving fortunes of commercial space, are converging so that the next president, whomever he or she might be, will be faced with a decision to make as well as an opportunity. If Congress continues to be generous to NASA, it could have enough money to return to the moon, in partnership with international partners such as the ESA and commercial companies such as Moon Express, sooner rather than later. The Moon base or “Moon Village” would not only be a center of science, exploration, and commerce, but it would be a necessary stop on the Journey to Mars. All it will take is the opportunity that lies before us to be wedded to the will to take advantage of it.