It is the year 3013, one thousand years into the future. Looking up into the night sky, you see a crescent Moon that is crisscrossed by a sparkling web of city lights. Millions of people are routinely working, living, and playing on the Moon. Billions live on Mars.

Many would agree that such a bright, promising future is probable. Some would contend that it is inevitable. What cannot be argued is that it is impossible, for we have already slipped the surly bonds of Earth.

The question is “when,” rather than “if.”

We don’t need to wait a millennium in order to get started. Fundamental new breakthroughs in physics are not required. Just as the hang glider and sailplane could have been developed and refined hundreds or thousands of years ago, we already have the needed technology to begin pioneering exploration of the Moon and Mars.

Currently, the most significant barrier holding us back is the astronomical price of space exploration. If you think that the cost of living in Tokyo is insane, how would you feel if the living expenses for your family came to $3 billion per year? That is what NASA currently pays to keep a half-dozen people alive in low Earth orbit. Amortize in the $100 billion construction price tag for the international space station and the true cost of living comes to something like $8 billion per year.

Want to keep a team of explorers alive on the Moon? You can safely multiply those costs by a factor of 10 or more. Want them to explore Mars? How can NASA afford a manned mission to Mars if it cannot even afford a robotic sample return that would bring back less than a kilogram of sand and gravel? In the financial sense, at this time Mars is genuinely the red planet.

How can we pay for the high price of space exploration? Perhaps a century from now there might be a viable market for lunar helium-3. Perhaps in 50 years there might be a demand for water from near-Earth objects and the Moon in order to fuel an orbital debris cleanup program. But for the immediate future, the enormous cost of access to space precludes profitable commercial space enterprises beyond geostationary orbit. 

The good news, however, is that space exploration does not need to be profitable. The most important spinoff of the space race has been NASA’s substantial budget, which has remained fairly stable since the end of the Apollo program, and is likely to remain that way. NASA has about $17 billion to spend on space each year with not one risk-adverse, profit-limited stockholder to hold it back.

Although some dreamers would like to see NASA’s budget doubled, not everyone thinks that spending even more money on space is a great idea. At either end of the political spectrum there are politicians who would gladly score points by diverting NASA dollars into the hands of the under-affluent or by returning them to the pockets of taxpayers. And in the current fiscal climate, asking for a significant increase in NASA’s budget would be nothing less than political suicide.

However, total liquidation of NASA would not significantly reduce the federal deficit, so as long as NASA’s budget continues to fly below the radar at one-half of 1 percent of the federal budget, it should be safe. Instead of enlarging its target cross-section by requesting more funding, NASA should secure its position by offering to responsibly match any percentage across-the-board federal spending cuts. Even with 85 percent of its current budget there is a phenomenal amount of exploration that NASA could accomplish.

So, the simple reality is that NASA must live within its means. Given that constraint, then, what can NASA do to make “when” happen sooner rather than later?

NASA can employ the same ruthless engineering discipline that put Apollo astronauts on the Moon. When Grumman Corp. engineers grappled with performance requirements for the lunar module they made the lunar landing possible by throwing overboard heavy seats and picture windows. Today, NASA needs to throw overboard empty gestures and political distractions. Instead, it needs to define realistic objectives for a century or more into the future and then focus exclusively on concrete steps that will move us forward toward those objectives.

For instance, one of NASA’s main objectives for a century from now could be the establishment of a self-sufficient research base on the Moon that would support a sustainable population of 1,000 scientists and engineers, providing electric power, air, water, food and shelter almost entirely from lunar materials.

NASA could then define a sequence of milestones that would support this objective, such as:

  • Exploring the mineral resources of the Moon.
  • Generating electric power on the Moon.
  • Extracting oxygen and water from lunar materials.
  • Growing food on the Moon.
  • Testing the physiological effects of long-term human exposure to one-sixth Earth’s gravity.
  • Closing the life-support loop to reduce costs.
  • Manufacturing structural components for shelters and vehicles from lunar materials.
  • Lowering the cost per pound of deliveries to the lunar surface.

Some of the initial development and testing could be accomplished on the ground. We know enough about the lunar environment and regolith composition to be able to test power generation, thermal management and oxygen generation concepts in the laboratory. Human life-support systems could also be extensively tested in the lab before deployment to space.

The first space milestone might not necessarily be returning Americans to the lunar surface. Instead, the first few objectives might be accomplished more expeditiously with a team of remote-controlled lunar rovers that could access almost the entire lunar surface. The best time for a human return to the lunar surface might be at a later stage, when lunar power, air and water resources are already online. The initial team of astronauts could then construct and service lunar manufacturing and agricultural facilities while investigating the long-term effects of lunar gravity.

It is these very long-term objectives that must be the true justification for our space program. Without them, space exploration becomes nothing more than a myopic exercise in flags and footprints. All in all, NASA needs to be less about reaching destinations and more about what we want to accomplish after we arrive. Until we know, we shouldn’t go.

Nelson Bridwell is a senior machine vision engineer working in manufacturing automation.