One of our presidential candidates recently got a lot of flack for suggesting we return to the moon within eight years to establish a lunar colony. (In that this is not a column about partisan politics, I won't name the candidate.) Critics used words like "wacky" to characterize the idea. Saturday Night Live got into the act with a skit about a "moon president."
The main argument against returning to the moon has been the cost. Disparaging comments about a price tag in the hundreds of billions of dollars have been thrown around, an impossible figure in an era of fears that U.S. debt could exceed GDP without severe government cost cutting.
But not so fast, says Charles Miller, a former NASA senior advisor for commercial space and now president of NexGen Space LLC. Miller and a group of NASA engineers analyzed what it would take to get to the moon and came up with a price tag that could be financed out of NASA's existing annual human-spaceflight budget (around $4 billion, he says) spent over ten years. He also endorsed the scheme for devising the necessary technology that is garnering derision among skeptical pundits: Allocating 10% of NASA's annual budget to prizes patterned after the Ansari X Prize competition that resulted in the development of SpaceShipOne.
Miller seems to have devoted a lot of thought to the idea of prizes. He says the first round of competition should be for a reusable spaceplane, an invention that would reduce the current launch-into-orbit cost of $5,000 to $10,000/lb to about $500/lb. The basic technology already exists in the form of the Boeing X-37, an unmanned vertical-takeoff, horizontal-landing spaceplane that first flew in 1999.
It isn't a lack of knowledge that has prevented NASA from pursuing reusable technology of this sort, Miller claims. The real reason is that market studies showed too little demand for flights. The number of projected flights wouldn't justify the investment, a problem which a relatively inexpensive (compared with enlisting all of NASA's resources) reusable spaceplane prize would solve.
And don't think the whole undertaking has no commercial value. Miller points out that the nation that builds the first true reusable spaceplane will be in a position to dominate the global commercial space industry in such areas as delivering satellites into orbit. It will also be able to capture new markets and head off attacks aimed at the commercial satellites which now handle GPS, internet services, and much more.
There is another aspect to the idea which has thus far received little media attention: China and India both have space programs aimed at ultimately reaching the moon. The Chinese already have plans to reach the moon by 2020. This year, they will launch the Shenzhou 10, a manned spaceflight focused on practicing docking maneuvers, eventually leading to the building of a space station. India plans to send astronauts into orbit by 2014. It launched its first lunar probe in 2008 and plans to launch its first manned mission in 2016.
One wag has suggested that when the U.S. next gets to the moon, we may have to ask the Chinese for permission to land. That idea is silly, of course, but when we hear suggestions for getting U.S. astronauts back to the moon, we should bear in mind that no one is calling similar plans by China and India "wacky."
-- Leland Teschler, Editor