WASHINGTON — For the last five years, NASA has made it clear that the moon is not on the agency’s critical path for its long-term goal of sending humans to the surface of Mars. While NASA is willing to support other countries that might be interested in going to the moon, and plans to operate in cislunar space around the moon, NASA doesn’t see the need to land humans on the moon again.
NASA administrator Charles Bolden reiterated this point in a talk last week at the Center for American Progress in Washington. “It will be critical for industry, both in the United States and elsewhere, but most importantly for our international partners to finally step up” and take the lead on lunar landing plans, he said. “Unfortunately, nobody’s stepped up yet.”
While no one may have stepped up yet, in the view of NASA, there is no shortage of proposals elsewhere for human lunar missions. Chinese officials have talked for years about having such missions as a long-term goal, although exactly how, and when, they would carry them out is uncertain. Last week, Vladimir Solntsev, the president of Russia’s RSC Energia, said a human mission was in the works for 2029, but how Russia’s cash-strapped space program would pay for it is also unclear.
Then there is the European concept of a “Moon Village.” Or, more accurately, the concept of an international lunar base espoused by the European Space Agency’s new director-general, Johann-Dietrich Woerner, on several occasions, both before and after becoming head of the space agency in July.
“We were looking at what are the requirements, what are the wishes, what are the demands for future lunar exploration,” Woerner said during a panel session with other heads of space agencies at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Jerusalem last month when asked about the idea.
“To go to the moon, it should not be a closed shop, but it should be an international joint effort where the different countries of the globe should bring in their special ideas, their special competence,” he continued. “Let’s give it a name: ‘Moon Village.’”
A village, he said, is a place where “some people are coming together, some nations are coming together.” Moreover, he suggested the base should be established on the lunar farside, a site valued by some radio astronomers because it is out of direct radio contact with the Earth.
Bolden, sitting next to Woerner at the conference panel, offered his take on the Moon Village idea. He reiterated his support for the “proving ground” concept of operations in cislunar space, but that the U.S. would not lead a human return to the moon.
“The U.S. does not have to be the country that says, ‘We’re going, follow us,’” he said. “We’re all going back to the surface of the moon. But, it’s just that the United States has no intention of leading that effort. We will support and be along with anybody that goes.”
Woerner has been discussing the idea of a Moon Village long before taking the helm of ESA, though. Speaking at the 31st Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in April, Woerner, then head of the German space agency DLR but already preparing to take over ESA, pitched another heads-of-agencies panel on an international lunar base.
“Why not go even a step further and not just land on the moon, but to have a permanent international moon station on the far side of the moon,” he said in that April panel. That base, he said, would offer opportunities for astronomy and planetary science, as well as “resource management” to learn how to make use of resources there.
“If that is a good step for further exploration of the solar system, wherever it goes, then it would be fine,” he said. “The first step is to define together, on a global perspective, a permanent international moon station on the far side of the moon. That would be a target we could really achieve and would give us a really big motivation from the public.”
While Woerner has been talking about these plans for some time, they have not yet translated into policy given the lack of official ESA backing for the proposal, let alone support from other space agencies, as well as Bolden’s comments lack week about other nations not yet stepping up to lead a lunar exploration program. However, others are paying attention.
“I was particularly impressed with the comments made by Jan Woerner, the new director-general of the European Space Agency,” said George Nield, Federal Aviation Administration associate administrator for commercial space transportation, recounting his impression of the IAC in a speech at a meeting of the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) last month. He was referring to Woerner’s Moon Village concept raised at the meeting.
“What appeals to me about that kind of a vision is that it minimizes the requirement for a very prescriptive, top-down management structure, with one country specifying the architecture and calling all the shots,” Nield said. “Instead, it would enable countries to participate as much or as little as they chose.”
Nield, though, raised one issue about the Moon Village concept. “Instead of assuming that each inhabitant of the village is the representative of a particular nation, or government space agency, let’s open it up to commercial entities,” he said.
There would, he argued, be a number of roles companies could play in an international lunar base, from providing goods and services to building habitats and other infrastructure. “The bottom line is, as we start to contemplate the idea of establishing villages on the moon or elsewhere in the solar system, let’s not limit our thinking to government space agencies,” he said. “Private industry has the potential to play an important role, and it need not be exclusively as a government contractor.”
Later in the day at the meeting, members of COMSTAC debated whether to enshrine that idea in a recommendation to the FAA that its engage directly with ESA on ways to involve commercial providers in the Moon Village concept. “I think it’s an interesting idea,” Nield said. “To the extent that the committee decides that that would be beneficial, I believe time is of the essence.”
“I think it’s embarrassing when NASA’s leadership is up on a stage with other international space agency heads, and they say, ‘We want to go back to the moon,’ and America’s response is, ‘We don’t lead,’” said Mike Gold, chairman of COMSTAC and an executive with Bigelow Aerospace, a company that has stated long-term aspirations of creating a lunar base.
Other members of COMSTAC suggested the committee take a little more time to think about the recommendation before approving it. After some discussion, COMSTAC elected to refine the recommendation and take it up in a special telecon to be scheduled in the near future.
Should COMSTAC recommend that the FAA discuss with ESA a commercial role in a Moon Village, Woerner has hinted he might be open to it. “The better is the enemy of the good, so if you have a better idea, I will join,” he said at the IAC. “But if you have no better idea, there’s one idea on the table. Let’s do it.”
This article originally appeared on The Space Review.