For the first time, NASA is planning to leverage commercial spacecraft for exploration missions, extending the proven public-private partnership model beyond Earth’s orbit. The Lunar Exploration Campaign proposed in the 2019 budget is a common-sense strategy for returning America to the moon. By leveraging commercial launchers, orbiters, landers, and platforms, NASA will be able to explore and conduct science on the moon far more quickly and cost-effectively than if the agency was planning a more traditional exploration strategy.
The Lunar Exploration Campaign will demonstrate American leadership in space and the preeminence of the American commercial space industry, while establishing core capabilities for future missions to Mars and planetary science missions throughout the solar system.
We were very encouraged by Space Policy Directive 1, signed by President Trump on Dec. 11, and we are further encouraged by the administration’s initiative to reform commercial space regulations.
As Vice President Pence has said, “while America[‘s space] industry and technology have leaped towards the future, our government agencies too often have remained stuck in the past.” Moon Express’s 2016 federal “Mission Approval” for a private sector mission to land on the moon required over six months interagency deliberations because of the lack of a clear framework for granting approval to non-traditional commercial space missions. We are grateful to the civil servants who made this national first happen, but the experience demonstrated that a regulatory gap exists. We have been pleased to see significant momentum to establish permissive regulatory frameworks for commercial space players. It is important to make it easier for the federal government to say “yes” to innovative commercial space efforts and assure freedom of enterprise in space within the bounds of U.S. international treaty obligations.
Streamlined regulatory frameworks will enable a new renaissance in exploration and utilization of Earth’s nearest celestial neighbor. The moon provides a perfect testing ground for NASA and its international and commercial partners to practice operations and develop technologies in deep space before heading out to Mars and the rest of the solar system.
As noted above, leveraging commercial launch and lander capabilities will also help the public sector by allowing NASA to undertake scientific and exploration missions to lunar orbit and the lunar surface far faster and less expensively than if it developed those capabilities in house. For example, in 2013, the National Academy of Sciences’ Planetary Science Decadal Survey recommended two high priority missions for the moon: to visit the Aitken crater on the lunar south pole to find water; and to conduct a lunar geophysical survey to study the structure of the moon. The decadal recommended both missions to be of the “New Frontiers” class, which has a cost cap of $850 million (not including launch or operations). Using commercial launch and lander services, it is likely that either of these missions could be undertaken for an order of magnitude less in cost, including launch.
This model of leveraging commercial partnerships can even be extended beyond the Earth-moon system to enable a new wave of planetary science missions.
Commercial robotic probes, landers and orbiters can be adapted for missions to visit other solar system destinations, such as the moons of Mars or asteroids.
At Moon Express, we are excited about the efforts of the National Space Council to assure American leadership in space through industry and international partnerships, and we look forward to supporting NASA as it returns to the lunar surface and reaches towards Mars and beyond.
Bob Richards is the CEO of Moon Express and a co-founder of the International Space University.