As the redoubtable Eric Berger notes in Ars Technica, America is headed back to the moon, thanks to the Trump administration. The policy change was not articulated in the traditional way, with a presidential speech. Vice President Mike Pence announced the change in the Wall Street Journal and again at the first meeting of the National Space Council. One of the more grievous blunders of the Obama administration, the decision announced on April 15, 2010, not to return to the moon, was rectified.

Pence was discrete about how and when American moon boots would be on the lunar surface.

Very likely, the return to the moon program will not be a redo of Apollo, with everything done in-house. Too many commercial companies are developing capabilities to go the moon to ignore in such a way. The question is, how much of a role will the commercial sector have?

Going full bore commercial

The announcement by Elon Musk that SpaceX is building the BFR, which the company’s chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell decorously called the “Big Falcon Rocket,” that could go to both Mars and the moon has offered the option of going full bore commercial. The space launch system is more expensive and less capable, at least on paper. Why not deep-six the SLS and help SpaceX out by buying BFR launches in advance?

Two problems exist for that option.

The first problem is that no one, not even Elon Musk, knows when the BFR will be operational. A rocket ship with the capabilities that SpaceX claims contains a great many technical challenges that have to be overcome before it becomes a reality. Even Musk states that the 2022 date is “aspirational.” The year that the SLS will start flying with people, about 2022, is a bit firmer.

The second problem involves the SLS’s defenders in Congress. If one proposes to cancel the project, one is going to pick a big fight with an array of influential senators and congressman that one is likely to lose.

Commercial light

The more likely approach will be to form a partnership between the commercial sector and NASA.

Commercial companies will be invited to submit ideas for lunar landers, much like the commercial crew program, and the top two or so will be chosen for funding. To be sure, NASA can still buy launches of the BFR, but it will be understood that those would supplement rather than replace The Space Launch System. If the SLS were to fade away after a few launches by the late 2020s, to be replaced by the BFR and whatever other commercial spacecraft come into being, few people would mourn. One could argue that the money to build the SLS was wasted, but one can also suggest that buying off the people who write the checks is a good investment, in a sausage making kind of way.