Traveling to the Moon just got a whole lot cheaper. A NASA-funded study (PDF) has found that the cost of lunar missions could be reduced by a factor of 10 using a number of techniques – and it could also have implications for getting humans to Mars.
The extensive NexGen Space study by the National Space Society (NSS) and the Space Frontier Foundation (SFF) said that partnerships with private companies could return humans to the Moon for $10 billion (£6.4 billion), rather than the previosuly estimated $100 billion (£64 billion) that had turned off potential suitors. Utilizing fuel sourced from the Moon – namely water and hydrogen – could also drastically reduce the cost of space travel further into the Solar System.
“A factor of ten reduction in cost changes everything,” said NSS Executive Committee Chair Mark Hopkins in a statement.
The goal of the study was to see if public-private partnerships and other approaches could result in a low-cost and low-risk method to return humans to the Moon while supporting future missions to Mars, dubbed an Evolvable Lunar Architecture (ELA).
The study points to NASA’s successful investments in private spaceflight so far through its COTS and CRS programs. By 2017, two manned spacecraft are set to launch as a result of the subsequent Commercial Crew Program – SpaceX’s manned Dragon capsule and Boeing’s CST-100.
Heavy-lift rockets are also in production, notably SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy and United Launch Alliance's (ULA) upcoming Vulcan rocket, that could be used to launch astronauts there without relying on NASA’s costly Space Launch System. Reusable spacecraft and lunar landers could also keep things on the cheaper side.
In five to seven years, the study says the U.S. could return astronauts to the Moon for $10 billion (£6.4 billion) – less than $2 billion (£1.3 billion) a year. In 10 to 12 years, it says that a four-person industrial base on the Moon could be operational, costing $40 billion (£26 billion), less than $4 billion (£2.6 billion) a year.
Both of these proposals could be covered by NASA’s existing deep space human spaceflight budget, which stands at about $4 billion a year.
SpaceX's upcoming Falcon Heavy, artist's impression shown, could be used for future lunar missions. SpaceX.
Crucially, the study says that a manned base on the Moon could produce 200 million tons of spacecraft propellant per year from water and hydrogen on the lunar surface. This propellant could be utilized by NASA for missions to Mars, drastically reducing their cost. The study notes, though, that it would be necessary to send robotic explorers to the Moon first to confirm that water and hydrogen are “economically accessible near the surface inside the lunar craters at the poles.”
The study also recommends creating an International Lunar Authority, “modelled after CERN,” to manage the combined business and technical risks of lunar operations. “A permanent commercial lunar base might substantially pay for its operations by exporting propellant to lunar orbit for sale to NASA and others to send humans to Mars, thus enabling the economic development of the Moon at a small marginal cost," it said.
At the moment, NASA does not have plans to return to the Moon. It is using its Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) – sending humans to an asteroid – as a cheaper stepping stone to Mars. But this study follows another by the National Research Council last year that suggests perhaps a return to the Moon would be a better option, and it might even be more economical.
“This is the way that America will settle the final frontier, save taxpayers money and usher in a new era of economic growth and STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] innovation,” the Space Frontier Foundation’s Chairman of the Board, Jeff Feige, added in the statement.