Companies, international partners key to future lunar exploration

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WASHINGTON – Entrepreneurs and international government agencies will play important roles in NASA’s future lunar exploration, according to speakers at the 2019 International Astronautical Congress here.

While previous lunar campaigns were directed and funded by the U.S. government, future missions will involve many private companies and international partners, said Ryan Whitley, National Space Council civil space policy director.

Through public-private partnerships, NASA intends to buy transportation for astronauts traveling to the International Space Station as well as astronauts traveling to the lunar surface.

“Public-private partnerships are essential to what we are trying to do,” said Margaret Kieffer, NASA Export Control and Interagency Liaison Division director. “Entrepreneurs see the advantage and the economic benefit of putting their own skin in the game.”

Public-private partnerships also benefit the U.S. government, “because we know that giving companies a chance to innovate and compete with one another will bring the best out of everyone,” said Kevin O’Connell, director of the Commerce Department’s Office of Space Commerce. “It doesn’t mean we give up on safety and the standards we apply.”

By investing in industry partners, the government is taking steps toward reducing the cost of space missions and helping companies establish a robust space economy, Ryan said.

The Office of Space Commerce is working closely with entrepreneurs as it seeks to foster economic growth and streamline regulations, O’Connell said.

“It is important to pay attention to the kinds of capabilities entrepreneurs are offering,” he added. “There’s sometimes a disbelief in government that something can happen or can happen as fast as entrepreneurs think it can.”

To help entrepreneurs succeed, O’Connell mentioned “the possibility the government could make a small investment” in companies to further government goals “even as the companies pursue commercialization.”

The panelists, who were discussing lunar exploration in the New Space age, frequently referred to Space Policy Directive One, which calls on NASA to “lead an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with commercial and international partners to enable human expansion across the solar system and to bring back to Earth new knowledge and opportunities.”

Entrepreneurs are helping to ensure future lunar campaigns are sustained, O’Connell said. “We see entrepreneurs thinking about training and feeding people who will live and work on the moon for long periods of time,” he added.

Moon Express, for example, has a long-term vision for lunar operations including mining.

“The moon is the next stepping stone,” said Bob Richards, Moon Express CEO and founder. “Its close to the economies of earth. It’s absolutely the next logical place for governments and the private sector to work together to push the boundaries of not just economics and entrepreneurship but of policy and law.”

International partners also will help to ensure a sustained human presence on the moon, panelists said.

“When you look at the whole picture of exploring the moon both robotically and with humans, NASA is one small part of that,” Kieffer said. With Artemis and the lunar Gateway, “the intention is to create an open architecture that industry and entrepreneurs can leverage for their own purposes. The goal is to encourage everyone to partner with NASA or with others in the international and commercial community.”

The panelists pointed to the space station as a good model for cooperation.

“You have resilience and risk reduction as a result of multiple partners being engaged on the architecture,” Ryan said. “It provides sustainability, resilience and affordability as countries participate and have the benefit of other nations investing with them.”

This type of international cooperation also offers geopolitical benefits. “It’s a diplomatic tool we cannot ignore,” Ryan said.

NASA has about 700 international partnerships in force now, Kieffer said. Those agreements have become even more important since March when Vice President Mike Pence announced the Trump Administration’s policy of returning astronauts to the moon within five years.

That direction keeps NASA “laser-focused on the task at hand,” Kieffer said.