In this Feb. 13, 1971, photo, Apollo 14 astronaut Alan Shepard Jr. conducts an experiment near a lunar crater. Science is a good reason to go back to the moon, but commercial development is a better one.
The ink was not yet dry on the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017 when U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, announced that he was going to work on a new NASA Authorization bill that will chart a long-term course for the space agency. Speaking to the Commercial Space Federation in Washington, D.C., last month, Cruz also said he will work on a new commercial space transportation bill that will build on the success of the 2015 Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act. Cruz, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Science and Space, will be in the position to determine where and, almost as important, how and why America will go into space for the foreseeable future. He also will be able to correct some of the mistakes of the past that have hampered the American civil space program for the past 10 or so years.
One of the singular mistakes that President Barack Obama made concerning space policy was to cancel the Bush-era return-to-the-moon program. On April 15, 2010, Obama stood before a select audience at the Kennedy Space Center, including Apollo moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, and declared, “Now, I understand that some believe that we should attempt a return to the surface of the moon first, as previously planned. But I just have to say pretty bluntly here: We’ve been there before. Buzz has been there.” Instead, Obama set Mars as the goal, with the first boots on the ground on the Red Planet scheduled sometime in the 2030s, decades away.
Subsequent studies, conducted by MIT and a think tank called Next-Gen Space, revealed that the decision to bypass the moon was, at best, ill-considered. Water ice, hidden away in cratersat the moon’s poles, would serve as a source for rocket fuel for missions to Mars and other destinations, simplifying the missions and making them cheaper to mount. The moon also has some inherent benefits – commercial, scientific and political – which makes it attractive as a destination beyond President Obama’s jibe of “Been there, done that.”
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So, in crafting the new NASA bill, Cruz should designate the moon as the near-term target for American astronauts. But then, why should America go back to the moon?
During the 1960s-era Apollo race to the moon, national prestige, beating the Soviet Union and demonstrating the superiority of democracy and capitalism, were the primary motivations. The science that the astronauts performed on the lunar surface, while important to this day, was incidental.
Prestige, which in the 21st century also means space leadership, is just as important today as it was 50 years ago. Science is an excellent rationale for going back to the moon as well. But the overriding reason for a return to the moon should be something that did not exist in the 1960s, that being commercial development. The moon, besides the aforementioned water, has deposits of platinum group metals, as well as rare-earth minerals and an isotope called helium-3 that could be used as fuel for future fusion reactors. If markets could be developed for these resources, on Earth or in space, they could become the foundation of a new, space-based economy.
Commercial development should, therefore, be the overriding rationale for returning to the moon. Prospector robots could be sent to characterize where and in what quantities useful minerals are located. If lunar mining becomes economically feasible, then a crewed lunar base would become a center of commerce as well as scientific exploration and international cooperation as lunar miners work side by side with scientists and explorers.
Why we should go back to the moon is a question that leads us to: How? Prospector robots could be commercially developed by such companies as Moon Express and Astrobotic in partnership with NASA. When astronauts return to the moon, they could do so in commercially procured landers. They could live on the lunar surface in commercial habitats and acquire air, water, food and energy from commercial providers. Commercial companies can solve some of the problems of living and working in space for less cost than NASA, while benefiting from the space agency’s knowledge base and resources. Commercial development of the moon holds out the possibility that space exploration could become a net money maker. While some space advocates have pointed to technological spinoffs that they suggest offset the cost of prior exploration efforts, developing a purpose with a direct economic benefit would inculcate the idea that space is not just an expensive hobby that some great nations indulge in, but something that is vital for their continued prosperity.
If all of those principles are incorporated in a new NASA bill and a commercial space law, they could change the course of American space policy with benefits that may well be out of this world.
Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has just published a political study of space exploration titled, “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.