The study that suggested that American astronauts could return to the moon by 2021 for $10 billion has caused rare excitement in the media though perhaps a little bemusement as well. Officially, due to a presidential mandate, NASA has eschewed a return to the moon. Of course, presidencies and thus space policy mandates change. In any event, Paul Spudis, a lunar geologist who frequently writes about space policy and is an advocate of a return to the moon, provided a reality check for the proposal Thursday.
One the one hand. Dr. Spudis noted with approval the plan’s emphasis on the mining of lunar water and its refining into rocket fuel. He has helped develop a plan to do just that, which the NASA-funded proposal seems to have borrowed heavily from.
However, Spudis has some objections to the plan.
First, he notes that the first moon boots on the ground would occur in the lunar equatorial region, the same general area that the Apollo missions landed. He suggests that since the moon base would be located at the lunar South Pole, where the water is, that this step should be bypassed, even if it means delaying the first human return to the moon.
Second, Spudis expresses some skepticism about the cost of implementing the plan. The history of large-scale space projects costing more than they are initially estimated (the International Space Station comes to mind) has become something of a tradition. Spudis focuses on the fact that the plan relies on commercial procurement practices, similar to the Commercial Crew Program, for costs saving. In the absence of actual proof, he suggests that such savings may be illusionary. This assessment runs counter to what had become an article of faith among advocates of what is called “NewSpace,” a group sometimes referred to as “the Internet Rocketeer Club.”
Spudis also noted that the proposal, while it touts the use of rocket fuel refined from lunar water to support missions to Mars, is almost silent about its use to support trips to other destinations is cis-lunar space, such as the Lagrange points where the gravities of the Earth and moon cancel one another out.
Finally, Spudis suggests that the mode of a quasi-commercial Lunar Authority would hold some dangers when, inevitably, rival powers (say the Chinese) arrive on the moon and begin asserting rights of territory and resources. Only a “federal presence,” perhaps in the form of an NASA operated base with an America flag on it, would suffice to protect American interests on the moon.
No doubt these objections can either be answered or else used to modify a return to the moon plan. But, Spudis’ piece represents a much-needed discussion as the presidential election cycle goes into high gear. The matter can be debated in advance of the next administration, which will certainly change current space policy and, it is hoped, redirect American efforts back toward the moon.