One of the many things that the incoming Donald Trump administration will do is to change the way NASA operates. Robert Walker, the former congressman who has advised Team Trump on Space policy, has already suggested that there will be a renewed emphasis on space exploration and public/private partnerships. Walker was interviewed by Space News and suggested that the first change in direction will be toward the lunar surface. President Barack Obama had explicitly eschewed allowing the space agency to conduct a return to the moon program, which had been a centerpiece of the George W. Bush-era Constellation program.

What form a return to the moon would take under Trump is unclear. NASA is already developing two elements of a lunar program, the Orion deep space craft and the heavy lift Space Launch System. Perhaps, in the spirit of the concept of public/private partnerships, the third piece of the moon triad, a lunar lander, could be outsourced to the private sector, perhaps as a part of a lunar version of the commercial crew program.

The way the idea would work is that NASA would open up a competition for a commercial lunar lander to the private sector with capabilities clearly spelled out. Then a number of private companies would make proposals, which would be funded and winnowed down to perhaps two vehicles.

The lunar landers would be owned and operated by commercial astronauts, making the first return to the lunar surface since the flight of Apollo 17 a joint NASA/commercial operation.

The beauty of this approach is that people can be back on the moon by the end of a second Trump term, meaning that the same president who proposed the mission would preside over its execution.

The prospect will surely appeal to someone with Donald Trump’s outsized ego. An early lunar return would promote American soft power, science and technology research, commercial ventures, and STEM education.

Incidentally, going back to the moon would advance the Journey to Mars, with access to lunar water that could be refined into rocket fuel.

A decision to go back to the moon would rectify one of the singular mistakes made by President Obama.

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