Public and Private Organizations Want to Go Back to the Moon—and then Beyond
The International Space Station
PHOTO COURTESY OF NASA
NASA and others in the global aerospace sector are ramping up efforts to return to the moon—46 years after the U.S. space agency last sent a team for a lunar walk. But a new generation of astronauts and rocket scientists sees the moon as more of a rest stop than a destination.
Today's project teams are instead focused on how to travel in space safely and cost-effectively, with an eye on future goals, says Pat Troutman, human exploration strategic analysis, NASA Langley Research Center, Hampton, Virginia, USA. (NASA is a member of PMI's Global Executive Council.) “It's about using the moon as a steppingstone for future travel,” he says. “It's not about who gets there first.”
Collaboration will help these projects take off. That was on display in September, when NASA and the Russian space agency Roscosmos agreed to partner on a project to build a space station that will orbit the moon and act as a staging ground for missions to asteroids and Mars. (Major work on this initiative is slated to begin in the mid-2020s, according to Roscosmos.) That same month, the European Space Agency proposed plans to replace the International Space Station with a permanent lunar colony as the first step toward exploring Mars; China's space agency has expressed interest in the project.
“We need every president, all of the U.S. Congress and all international officials to stop changing their minds.”
—Pat Troutman, NASA Langley Research Center, Hampton, Virginia, USA
Bold plans—but securing steady support for these projects won't be easy: The vagaries of politics can jeopardize funding. “This is a marathon, and we need every president, all of the U.S. Congress and all international officials to stop changing their minds,” Mr. Troutman says.
He notes that every time there is a change in leadership, current projects can get shelved and new ambitious goals are proposed, such as heading directly to Mars. It's frustrating for project champions who worry their initiatives may ultimately be canceled or drastically altered.
“It's forced us to change our strategic thinking,” says Daniel Mazanek, senior space systems engineer, NASA Langley Research Center, Hampton, Virginia. That means moving away from building custom solutions designed to meet the specific needs of a single project and instead focusing on broader technological applications, he says. For instance, Mr. Mazanek adds, many teams at the agency are now focusing on how to efficiently move a vehicle beyond the gravity field into space and how to build more flexible, longer-lasting infrastructure that can enable long-term exploration. This gives them the agility to pivot with the whims of a new administration.
NASA and other government-backed organizations are also looking to the private sector to lower the cost of the next generation of space exploration projects. NASA pioneered technology but now needs to “get out of the way and let industry improve on it,” Mr. Troutman says. As an example, he points to SpaceX, which has reduced the cost of launching its Falcon 9 rockets into space in part by reusing boosters and previously flown rockets.
“We can't live on this planet forever, so we need to be able to move into the cosmos. Private industry can help make that happen.”
—Daniel Mazanek, NASA Langley Research Center, Hampton, Virginia, USA
NASA encourages innovation in its private-sector collaborations by establishing only high-level requirements in its contracts, says Robert Moses, senior aerospace technologist and systems engineer, NASA. For example, they might stipulate a company must deliver a specific weight of goods to the space station without saying how to do so.
Such innovation is vital for all of humanity, adds Mr. Mazanek. “We can't live on this planet forever, so we need to be able to move into the cosmos,” he says. “Private industry can help make that happen.”
—Sarah Fister Gale
Google's Space Race
Established players such as SpaceX and Virgin Galactic aren't the only private aerospace companies invading outer space. A new generation of startups is aiming for the moon. Many had hoped to win the US$20 million Google Lunar X Prize competition by getting there. To win the prize, announced in 2007, a team had to place on the moon's surface a robot that can travel at least 500 meters (1,640 feet) and transmit video and images of that trip back to Earth. But in January, after multiple deadline extensions, X Prize officials ended the competition without a winner. Some of the five finalist teams plan to continue their efforts to reach the moon, however. They have taken very different project approaches.
For example, Japanese team Hakuto signed a ride-share partnership with another finalist, India's TeamIndus, so it could focus solely on building a four-wheeled rover to travel on the moon and send back images. (Both these teams are backed by their country's respective space agencies.) Meanwhile, international team Synergy Moon partnered with U.S.-based Interorbital Systems to use a launch site off the coast of California, USA. This approach is about US$1 million cheaper than paying for access to a land-based rocket launch pad, says Kevin Myrick, co-founder, Synergy Moon, San Francisco, California, USA.
Synergy's team is opting to take a direct route to the moon rather than sending a rocket into orbit. “With our plan, we can complete the mission in three days, versus two weeks if we went into orbit,” he says. The direct route's lower radiation risk means Synergy's equipment doesn't have to be heavily radiation-proofed, which substantially lowers project costs. “A US$200 microchip can cost US$200,000 if it has to be radiation-hardened for space,” Mr. Myrick says.
The Lunar X Prize purse was never what really drove his team, he says. “Our dream of getting people into space—meaning interested, involved and invested—is the real motivator. It's about creating sustainable technology that will benefit the whole world.”