[Note: This blog post was originally planned to be something significantly longer, triggered by one of Eric Berger’s recent Ars Technica articles1. But running a bootstrapped startup gave me the choice of waiting until this was totally irrelevant, or saying something less comprehensive now. I went with the latter.]
One of the space policy ideas that has been getting a lot of air-time recently, particularly with the change in presidential administrations, is that NASA should abandon its Asteroid Redirect Mission and so-called Journey to Mars for a return to the Moon instead. You would think that as someone whose website name more or less means the “lunar back country,” that I would be a huge fan of that idea. But really, I’d rather that Congress and the Trump administration stick with their Journey to Mars, and only “throw the Moon a bone.”
By throwing the Moon a bone, I mean some level of NASA involvement that is greater than benign neglect, but less than being its core focus. Why? Because when NASA picks something as a core focus, it tends to attract all of the NASA centers and their special interests and pet projects out of the woodwork, trying to find some way to be involved, even if it doesn’t make sense. But programs that aren’t core or flagship programs, that get just enough support to actually happen without becoming another “10 healthy centers” make-work project, they sometimes get real things done. I’m thinking of things like COTS, or like the competed SMD missions. So, I’d rather NASA keep its manned spaceflight program focused on an indefinite “Journey to Mars,” with NASA centers fighting over development of some big Mars mission elements like deep space habs, Mars landers, or something else like that, while keeping lunar involvement lower key.
One idea would be to do something like COTS for the Moon, as part of supporting ESA’s Lunar Village concept. Basically do a public/private partnership with 2-3 companies to develop moderate-sized (1-20mT) unmanned cargo landers to the Moon, followed by a modest CRS-like cargo delivery contract. Have that, and possibly the use of a cislunar deep space hab be our contribution to the Lunar Village. If SLS/Orion survive the axe, maybe we could also throw in providing crew transport to the Moon as well. But let ESA develop the crew lander2 and the base facilities. With the commitment of US provided logistics, and possibly crew transport to a cislunar orbital habitat, that should be encouragement enough to ESA and Russia etc to develop the rest. Ironically, that would have the US in a way playing a somewhat similar role for the Lunar Village to what Russia has been doing with Soyuz and Progress for ISS.
In return for us providing cargo deliveries, and possibly some part of the crew deliveries, NASA could ask for one of the crew landing on any given lunar mission be American (much as ESA and JAXA get to send a crew member in exchange for ATV and HTV deliveries), and having some subset of the crew time on the surface dedicated to NASA research and US commercial lunar efforts. Like ISS, they could set aside a useful fraction of the lunar cargo and crew time to be provided to commercial entities trying to prove out lunar ISRU, prospecting, propellantless launch/landing technologies, or other items related to lunar commerce. I’m just thinking about all of the technologies necessary for lunar resources to become useful to humanity–the prospecting, mining, refining, propellantless launching, etc. Imagine how much easier it would be to develop say a lunar ice mining system, if you had access to a little bit of crew support time as needed, without having to cover the full cost of getting the crew there. Without something like lunar village, the cost of having people in the loop would be prohibitive, so you’d be forced to try and do everything robotically. But the mix of robots with a tiny bit of crew time to handle the small subset of tasks that would take the vast majority of the effort to fully automate seems really promising.
My worry is that if the Moon becomes NASA’s core focus again, that NASA will insist on doing core elements in-house, like resurrecting the monstrosity previously known as LSAM to go after a manned lander. If we want to go back to the Moon in a way that doesn’t amount to little more than reheated Apollo leftovers, having the Moon be a secondary priority might actually better than being the main show.
- Eric is tied with Jeff Foust for being my favorite space policy writer
- Which could theoretically be an ascent stage or lunar ejector seat concept attached to the cargo landers