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A new NASA-funded study lays out a plan to return humans to the Moon

Footprints by 2021 and a permanent base by the 2030s

Humans could return to the Moon in the next decade and live there a decade after, a new study claims. The announcement was made on the 46th anniversary of the Apollo 11 crew's first steps on the lunar surface.

The study, performed by NexGen Space LLC and partly funded by NASA, concludes that the space agency could land humans on the Moon in the next five to seven years, build a permanent base 10 to 12 years after that, and do it all within the existing budget for human spaceflight. The way for NASA to do this is to adopt the same practice that it's using for resupplying the International Space Station (and will eventually use for crew transport) — public-private partnerships with companies like SpaceX, Orbital ATK, or the United Launch Alliance.

NASA can cut the cost of establishing a human presence on the Moon "by a factor of 10," according to Charles Miller, NexGen president and the study's principal investigator. Savings of that magnitude would allow NASA to expand its ambitions for lunar exploration without reaching beyond the almost $4 billion per year it receives for human spaceflight.

The NexGen study references SpaceX's ISS resupply costs as an example of where these savings will come from. SpaceX currently charges NASA about $4,750 for every kilogram sent to orbit aboard its Falcon 9 rocket, far less than the price of the Apollo-era Saturn V ($46,000 per kilogram) or even the space shuttle ($60,000 per kilogram). While the study does use SpaceX's next generation rocket, the Falcon Heavy, as an example in its plans to get to the moon, SpaceX claims the Falcon Heavy will be as cheap or cheaper per kilogram than the Falcon 9.

This Evolvable Lunar Architecture plan would also stir a new economy by mining the Moon for hydrogen in the polar water ice. The hydrogen would be processed and turned into cryogenic propellant, which would be stored in a propellant depot craft which orbits the Moon. That fuel would be sold to NASA or others looking for a way to fuel up for a trip to Mars. "You basically expand free enterprise to the Moon," Miller says."You basically expand free enterprise to the Moon."

It would cost NASA a total of $10 billion over the five-to-seven-year period, with $5 billion going to each of the two selected competitors, much like how NASA awarded dual contracts for its commercial cargo and commercial crew programs. Each company would develop its own crewed lunar lander, and have to develop or upgrade a commercial crew spacecraft. (SpaceX, for example, would have to modify the crewed version of its Dragon capsule.) "One provider’s not enough," Miller says. "You need to expect that one of them is going to go down. You need redundancy."

This is not new money NASA would have to spend. It is instead a readjustment. NASA is already planning to go back to the Moon with its next-generation rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), but there are no plans to land. By using commercial partners, NASA could reduce the number of planned SLS launches from 12 to around three, reducing the cost of the program while still developing the technologies necessary to support it.

The NexGen study lays out a detailed roadmap for when and how to take the next step of performing a landing. A robotic return to the Moon could happen as soon as 2017, if NASA were to adopt the plan right away. Rovers would scout the lunar poles for hydrogen in 2018, and prospecting could begin by 2019 or 2020. Robotic construction of a permanent base would begin in 2021 in anticipation of landing humans on the Moon later that year.

A number of obvious risks are addressed in the study. For one, the cost and risk of developing a lunar base is far beyond that what is considered acceptable for businesses looking for a return on their investment. The study also lays out strategies for how to respond to things like the loss of a launch vehicle, loss of lander vehicles, and even loss of crew.

There is also the risk of ever-changing government support. "It is difficult to imagine industry trusting that NASA can keep such a commitment without significant changes," the study says. To solve these, the study proposes the formation of an International Lunar Authority to oversee things, and references existing models like CERN or the Port Authority of NY/NJ as examples. "Every single person in the United States benefits from space every single day."

The study was vetted by a 21-person independent review team made up of former members of NASA's administration, members of the commercial spaceflight community, and four former NASA astronauts. Tom Moser, who is a member of the study's review team, was the first program director for the International Space Station, so he's familiar with how hard it is to convince people of the benefits of major space programs. To get the space station off the ground, he told the government they should set a timeline and "deep six it into the Pacific Ocean" if it didn't produce. Congress agreed to invest in the idea, and the space station is still around. "Every single person in the United States benefits from space every single day," Moser says.

Moser says he believes in the proposed mission but that it won't happen without support and education from United States leadership. "If somebody at the level of president wants to do it it’s going to take a campaign to educate the public on why it’s a good thing to do," Moser says.

Miller agrees, but he's hopeful that today's news will inspire Congress or some of the 2016 presidential candidates to take action. "If the next president is just satisfied with what we’re doing in deep space and human spaceflight, then there’s no need for this," Miller says.

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