The most significant news in space policy did not come out of the second public meeting of the National Space Council that took place at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, even though the plans for deregulating space commerce will have far-reaching effects. The day before that meeting. Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot spoke at the Space Transportation Association Breakfast and opened his mind about the next human landings on the lunar surface.

A vision for 2030

Lightfoot placed the date of the first return to the moon as being in the latter part of the 2020s.

By the year 2030, people will be making regular visits to the moon from the facility formerly known as the Deep Space Gateway and now called the Lunar Orbiting Platform – Gateway. How and in what form the first lunar landing will take place was only vaguely laid out.

Incremental steps to landing on the moon

The strategy that is being pursued by the Trump administration is to partner with commercial companies such as Moon Express, Astrobotic, and Blue Origin to send landers of increasing size and sophistication to the lunar surface starting as early as 2019. The initial landings will contain scientific instruments provided by NASA. Rovers and other robotic payloads will follow to prospect for resources, mine and refine them, and to send elements of the lunar base to the moon.

Eventually, a crewed lunar lander would evolve from this process.

In the meantime, the first propulsion and power segment of the LOP – Gateway would be deployed to lunar orbit by 2022 on a commercial rocket, either a Falcon Heavy or the upcoming Blue Origin New Glenn. A habitation module would follow, as well as docking units for the Orion spacecraft and possibly commercial vehicles such as the SpaceX Dragon.

Another docking port will be used by the crewed lunar lander.

The day we return to the moon

If regular lunar operations are taking place in 2030, the implication is that the first lunar return would take place some years before. When a lunar lander is deployed at the LOP – Gateway, the first people to land on the moon would fly to the facility on an Orion launched by the heavy-lift Space Launch System.

They would transfer to the lunar lander and ride it the rest of the way to the moon’s surface. The first people will walk on the moon since Apollo 17 in 1972. Interesting when asked whether those astronauts will either be NASA or commercial, Lightfoot slyly said, “Yes.”

The Big Falcon Rocket wildcard

The above, at least, seems to be the plan at NASA. However, while the Space Agency’s plan to go back to the moon will proceed slow and steady, SpaceX will be developing a spacecraft that could upend all of those plans. The commercial space company will begin testing the BFR Big Falcon Rocket – starting in 2019. Hop tests will be followed by orbital missions. Lunar landings may be possible using the BFR sooner than most people imagine.

Elon Musk may well be able to offer a return to the moon to NASA or anyone else willing to pay long before the first lunar lander can depart from the Lunar Orbiting Platform – Gateway. One way to return to the moon after so many decades would be fantastic. Two methods would be an embarrassment of riches.