While President trump’s directive to NASA to return astronauts to the moon has received a great deal of praise, it has not come without some doubters raising objections. Writing in Forbes, astrophysicist Ethan Siegel flatly states that America is not going back to the moon. In a dialogue on Market Place, Molly Wood and Kimberly Adams also cast doubt on whether the third time is a charm for a return of America to the lunar surface. The common theme seems to be a question of how to pay for it.

Is going back to the moon expensive?

One common figure that is thrown around when calculating what a return to the moon would cost is $100 billion.

It is an excellent round figure and is high enough to lend an air of seriousness. However, a lot of observers of the political scene doubt that Congress will pay the money, no matter how many people support a lunar return rhetorically.

Nevertheless, the $100 billion figure is likely in the ballpark if NASA were to conduct the return to the moon program in the traditional, Apollo project method, with cost-plus contracts and massive oversight of contractors. However, a number of studies suggest that the space agency could do things in a different way that would save both time and money.

Going to the moon commercially

A 2015 study by a think tank called NextGen Space suggests that the first footsteps on the moon could take place in five to seven years for a cost of about $10 billion, well within the current NASA budget.

The trick would be to outsource the return to the moon to two competing commercial companies, paid $5 billion apiece structured in such a way to provide incentives for making milestones. The lunar astronauts would set up mining operations to extract water from the moon’s poles to refine into rocket propellant. Having the moon as a refueling station would save a considerable amount of money for deep space and even Earth orbit operations, more than paying for itself.

A more recent study, cited by the Wall Street Journal, suggests that NASA adopt some of the best business practices conducted by companies such as SpaceX. The study also suggests using asteroids as a source of lunar water.

Clearly, when considering cost and speed, a commercial partnership of some sort is the path back to the moon, likely the only path. The question arises, will the Trump administration, Congress, and NASA move to adopt the new way of doing things, thus making success more likely?