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Pair will be tasked with baking designs for mankind's first extra-terran outpost

A staple of science fiction for nearly a century, mankind has long dreamt of colonizing the moon.  Now those dreams could be a bit closer to reality thanks to an enterprising entrepreneur.  He's paired with America's space agency to develop plans for a moon base -- and he's doing it for free to start.

I. Big Science Comes and Goes

Man first set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969.  High on the competitive thrill of the Cold War, the U.S. spent nearly $130B USD in today's money ($25.4B USD back in 1973) to send six manned missions to the moon.  The intention was to eventually create a permanent outpost, but by the mid-1970s the U.S. government had shuttered those plans.

Frustrated by close calls and enervated by an easing of Cold War tensions, the U.S. would drop its dreams of lunar colonization, occasionally toying with them in the 1980s and 1990s.  Instead it focused its efforts on Earth orbit shuttle missions.

Nearly a decade ago, in January 2004, President George W. Bush called on The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to launch a new wave of lunar exploration, establishing a permanent presence on Earth's rocky satellite.

President Bush
Nine years ago President Bush called on the U.S. to colonize the Moon. [Image Source: EPA]

In a speech he remarked:

Establishing an extended human presence on the moon could vastly reduce the cost of further space exploration, making possible ever more ambitious missions.  Lifting heavy spacecraft and fuel out of the Earth's gravity is expensive. Spacecraft assembled and provisioned on the moon could escape its far lower gravity using far less energy and thus far less cost.

[The moon] contains raw materials that might be harvested and processed into rocket fuel or breathable air.  With the experience and knowledge gained on the moon, we will then be ready to take the next steps of space exploration -- human missions to Mars and to worlds beyond.

He claimed that NASA could return to the moon for $12B USD by 2020.  But as the years have rolled on, that figure looked increasingly unrealistic -- both historically and in terms of NASA's current budgetary and brainpower shortages.  Experts recently estimated a return trip to the moon would cost around $145B USD.

II. Lunar Plans Stall Under Obama

President Bush's successor, President Barack Obama has made the goal of a lunar landing in the near future seem even less likely.  He's shifted focus from the Moon mission to a more ambitious goal -- a Mars landing. At the same time he retired the Shuttle Program in 2011, turning to commercial contractors like SpaceX to provide for NASA's future manned and unmanned space transportation needs.

NASA's budget
NASA's budget has been on a downward tilt. [Image Source: NASA]

And NASA's budget continued to slide as Congress looked to sacrifice space exploration and other science programs to sustain the pork payouts they owed the folks who got them elected: in 2010 the average cost of a successful U.S. House run was ~$1.4M USD, and ~$8.9M USD for the U.S. Senate [source] and a recent University of Kansas School of Business study [PDF] indicates that for every dollar donated to a federal candidate by special interest they "owe" that entity roughly $240 USD in taxpayer-funded payouts.
Under President Obama a smaller NASA has refocused on commercial partnerships. 
[Image Source: SpaceX]

Amid that climate, there seems to be little hope for big science at NASA, and organization with little in the way of well-heeled lobbyists or silver-tongued sponsors.

III. Bigelow Looks to Salvage Mankind's Colonization Hopes

And yet the goal of a lunar base still creeps on in NASA's dark age.  The agency is today looking to private contractors to potentially allow it to establish a lunar base on a budget.  

Bigelow Aeropsace moon base
Bigelow's Moon base will likely use inflatable modules. [Image Source: Bigelow Aerospace]

This week, David Weaver, NASA Associate Administrator, announced that it would conduct an "initial planning phase" study with Bigelow Aerospace with the intent of developing a design for a lunar outpost.

Mr. Weaver comments:

As part of our broader commercial space strategy, NASA signed a Space Act Agreement with Bigelow Aerospace to foster ideas about how the private sector can contribute to future human missions.

This will provide important information on possible ways to expand our exploration capabilities in partnership with the private sector.  The agency is intensely focused on a bold mission to identify, relocate and explore an asteroid with American astronauts by 2025 — all as we prepare for an even more ambitious human mission to Mars in the 2030s. NASA has no plans for a human mission to the moon.

Bigelow Aerospace shares many similarities to SpaceX.  The Las Vegas-based company was founded in 1998 by a Robert Bigelow, who made his wealth off of the Budget Suites of America hotel chain he owned managed.  The company's trademark is low-cost inflatable spacecraft made from high-tech materials.

IV. A Rising Star of the Commercial Spaceflight Industry

In January 2013, Bigelow scored its biggest hit yet, winning a $17.8M USD contract to develop and build an inflatable expansion for the International Space Station.  The ISS, which launched in 1998, will deorbit and be sent to the ocean around 2020 according to recent remarks from the deputy head of Russia's Roskosmos space agency, Vitaly Davydov.

While NASA isn't paying Bigelow Aerospace anything for this initial phase lunar study, Robert Bigelow doesn't seem too bothered by that.  After all, the space entrepreneur says he's been carrying out crude preliminary phase planning sessions about a moon base for years now.

According to Mr. Bigelow, the initial phase study will take about 100 days.  He's already making plans for a second phase 120-day study, which could snage some funding from NASA.

Bigelow moon base
The initial phase of the study will take 100 days. [Image Source: Bigelow Aerospace]

Bigelow Aerospace's Moon shot will likely make use of inflatable modules -- possibly from repurposed launch vehicles. 

Source: Space Industry News

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Why bother?
By ShieTar on 4/23/2013 10:42:19 AM , Rating: 0
Does anybody have the slightest idea what could possibly be gained by having a moon-base? I mean, the wild fantasies of Mr. Bush aside, who apparently thinks we can afford to bring up the thousands of people and Kilo-tons of machines required to establish any meaningful industry just because launching from the moon saves a little fuel when going for more distant targets of exploration.

As far as science goes, the moon would just be a slightly more convenient location for the astronauts, as it has a little gravity. On the flip-side, that means you can't do any zero-gravity experiments there, and isn't that the whole purpose of going to space anyways?

Don't get me wrong, I am supportive of fundamental research and exploration, but placing humans on the moon/mars/whatever seems like such a waste of effort, when we can send dozens, if not hundreds, of unmanned missions for the same cost, in the same time.

RE: Why bother?
By Ammohunt on 4/23/2013 10:50:47 AM , Rating: 5
You being serious? Low gravity launches, water for fuel, plenty of resources to manufacture larger space craft from new low gravity manufacturing techniques, the list goes on and on.

RE: Why bother?
By Samus on 4/23/2013 11:36:11 AM , Rating: 2
I support the idea of a moon base as a launch pad for distant missions, I don't like the idea of mining the moon for resources...

RE: Why bother?
By fteoath64 on 4/25/2013 8:13:23 AM , Rating: 2
While NASA might not be interested in the Moon (you have to dig real deep for the reason, they have a reason they cannot tell), Bigelow is interested in the Moon mainly because the Chinese has already expressed their interest in setting a base there. Without the presence of another country there on the moon, US people is afraid that China might claim the moon for themselves!!!.
However, Bigelow and his company being civilian and not in on the previous agreement, can be free to explore and take his risks with some Nasa funding which would be mutually beneficial for both parties. Bigelow seems to be the only American who is taking this stand. The logo on Bigelow Industries gives a strong hint as to what is out there ...

I think China would have to take their chances exploring the Moon like all other early pioneers. But if China managed to mine Helium-3 in quantity, they will solve their energy problems and rocket ahead of everyone else!.

RE: Why bother?
By delphinus100 on 4/26/2013 2:14:03 AM , Rating: 2
You have it precisely backwards. You don't go to the trouble to leave Earth, to go down into the Lunar gravity well, in order to go to yet another gravity well, like Mars. LEO is what spaceship assembly is for. Using local resources for fuel (ISRU) is what you do at your destination, not a detour.

Oh, and 'The Time Machine' was not a documentary (neither was 'space: 1999'), and you clearly have no understanding of the Moon's mass, or how gravity works. A simple glace at its surface shows that it's been bombarded with meteoroids and asteroids for billions of years without being blown apart (it can't simply 'fall' apart...gravity again), noting humans can do will even approach that.

The only correct thing in that film clip was; 'That's impossible.'

Yes, let's use this relatively convenient dry, airless, lifeless body for resource extraction as much as practical, and do less damage to the only world we currently know to have life...

RE: Why bother?
By TerranMagistrate on 4/23/2013 10:54:43 AM , Rating: 2
Jobs, technology, a common purpose!

RE: Why bother?
By precarious on 4/23/2013 11:01:59 AM , Rating: 2
Generally, when shooting for this, you would want to have a long-term plan laid out: not a short-term one comprised only of baby steps, which inevitably depletes a finite amount of terrestrial resources, dooming us to a slow death on an Earth festooned with one-off "good ideas" and "innovations" that once satiated those who looked skyward, but ultimately prescribed humanity's failure.

In short, let's make some more iPhones and tablets and trendy consumer gadgets and some-mother's-son space stories so we can ride those all into the sun and burn to death because no one really ever thinks beyond their own immediate gratification.

RE: Why bother?
By danjw1 on 4/23/2013 11:12:40 AM , Rating: 3
Because every dollar we have put into our space program has been returned to our economy several fold because of the new technologies we have developed.

That said I am very happy to see NASA going with newer smaller companies, rather then the old guard. The old guard doesn't have any idea of how to get anything done on budget or in a cost reduced manner. COTS is a good paradigm for the way the government goes forward with contracts. Make the companies have some skin in the game, none of this cost plus junk. Since the companies will benefit from the technologies they develop, they should have some risk as well.

RE: Why bother?
By phxfreddy on 4/25/2013 6:32:57 AM , Rating: 2
that is a lame/false argument. It presupposes that the same tech developments would not have happened otherwise.

RE: Why bother?
By BRB29 on 4/25/2013 7:50:12 AM , Rating: 2
I thank NASA for the satellites. A working GPS is priceless sometimes.

RE: Why bother?
By superkev72 on 4/23/2013 11:38:27 AM , Rating: 5
Wow. Your ignorance is staggering - a little knowledge might go a long way for you. The ideas about a moon base being the logical next step are sound. I guess your clear hatred of President Bush has colored your logic to a great extent.

So many things wrong with your assertions I don't know where to start. The whole point of a presence on the moon is to establish the technologies required to exist in an extended sense on another planetary body. The moon is a very good test bed for this. Additionally you don't just save a 'little' fuel using a moon based launch facility. The difference is multiple orders of magnitude. Robotic missions develop virtually none of the technology required for these endeavors that we don't already have. I loved your assertion the moon is 'slightly more convenient'... that was classic.

BTW I worked for NASA for 17 years (shuttle program) so I do have some experience in this field.

RE: Why bother?
By Samus on 4/23/2013 11:42:37 AM , Rating: 4
One of the few things Bush had right. Had only he put his money where his mouth is (instead of in Iraq)

RE: Why bother?
By Strunf on 4/23/13, Rating: 0
RE: Why bother?
By mjv.theory on 4/23/2013 4:06:51 PM , Rating: 2
Your ignorance is staggering if you believe that the Moon is a good test bed to develop and test "technologies required to exist in an extended sense" on Mars or in space. Presumably you have some kind of sentimental attachment to the notion of a Moon base, you have certainly not based your based your assessment on detached logic. A combination of Earth and LEO would be much more convenient. As a destination, the Moon is good for only one thing: scientific study.

btw, is that the same shuttle program that cost $1,460,000,000 per flight ($196Billion total project cost for 134 missions), killed 14 astronauts and condemned NASA to over 30 years of going no further than LEO. Yeah, you must have some experience in the field.

RE: Why bother?
By superkev72 on 4/23/2013 11:50:43 PM , Rating: 2
mjv.theory you are a moron. Sad you would use the deaths of astronauts in your arguments, says a lot about your lack of any character. No attachment to moon missions and I was merely a scientist attached to the shuttle program along with some other programs. So it's seems in the world according to mjv I am at fault for being a scientist employed within in a ridiculously inefficient government program...

Your experience seems to revolve around trolling which you get 5 stars for. Perhaps someone will give you that pony after all.

RE: Why bother?
By mjv.theory on 4/24/2013 4:11:50 AM , Rating: 2
The basis of the argument at hand is whether a Moon base would be of benefit in preparing for more distance solar system exploration and colonisation. With regard to colonisation, the only likely targets are Mars and space-stations. Neither of these scenarios are a good match for a Moon "test bed". Anyone travelling from Earth and going beyond the Moon would certainly not benefit from stopping at the Moon to re-launch. Chemical propellent remains the best solution for launching from planetary bodies, specifically Earth, Mars and the Moon. Whilst some form of plasma electric or nuclear thermal propulsion are far better suited to travel between destinations. So chemical propellent potentially manufactured on the Moon is in reality of little benefit.
Manufacturing large interplanetary space-craft is much more easily achieved and convenient from LEO than the Moon. In short, the arguments for the Moon as Spaceport, spacecraft factory, fuel depot or Mars test-bed are all plainly flawed in several respects.

No attachment to moon missions and I was merely a scientist attached to the shuttle program along with some other programs. So it's seems in the world according to mjv I am at fault for being a scientist employed within in a ridiculously inefficient government program...

So no "experience" in the field of using the Moon as a test bed for Mars or as a solar system exploration base. Yet you felt compelled to inform us all of your NASA connection as though it somehow added authority to your prior ill thought out arguments. The quote above certainly tells us something about your ability to construct a logical argument.

I am happy to admit my resentment for the shuttle program that was such a waste of human resources and not only failed to advance humankind in the exploration of space but actually retarded those hopes. That said, mention of the lost astronauts was perhaps beneath me. As for "moron" and "troll", both are quite obviously false by any calculation. As to the quality of the argument and the manner in which you have conducted yourself in both your posts, we might only assume to be a reflection of your character.

RE: Why bother?
By mjv.theory on 4/23/13, Rating: 0
RE: Why bother?
By superkev72 on 4/24/2013 12:01:09 AM , Rating: 2
Gotta love how you amalgamate all the launch costs into a single figure automatically assuming that development of any resources on the moon is impractical and as you put it illegitimate. If facilities for fuel and spare parts production even in a limited sense were located on the moon you gain back the re-entry costs every time it's used. Lot's of benefits to being there (research being only one).

RE: Why bother?
By JKflipflop98 on 4/24/2013 2:03:58 PM , Rating: 2
Don't waste your bandwidth, man. He clearly has no idea what he's talking about.

RE: Why bother?
By BRB29 on 4/25/2013 7:58:41 AM , Rating: 2
The point of the moon is to make it a hub instead of earth. You can launch the same spacecraft 10x but you only need to leave earth once. The other 9 times are from the moon.

What the hell is g? it is normally referred to as gravity or gangaster/goon. You are using it as energy. but 9.8 and 1.6 is acceleration rate isn't it? you cannot count acceleration as energy like that. Energy requirements increase exponentially compared to a linear increase in mass or acceleration.

RE: Why bother?
By hartleyb on 4/23/2013 1:43:34 PM , Rating: 1
I would add a different perspective to the argument. The Space race was a huge economic and technological boon to the late 1950's, 1960's and early 1970's. Almost everything we produced during that time and much of what we are producing today has it's origins in the space program. From alloys, to computers, and communication to tooth paste, all had their origins in the space program. If you look at the last 20 years of our country you would be alarmed by the fact we really haven’t created a lot of new technology, but have only improved on what we already had In order for the generations to come to be successful we need to become more inventive, and restarting the space race is one way that could happen. Also I won't even go into the waning resources of our current planet Earth. We need to reach for the next Frontier if we are ever to survive as a species.

RE: Why bother?
By saganhill on 4/24/2013 9:06:16 AM , Rating: 1
Im sure the people who came to the new world stated the same as you.

RE: Why bother?
By phxfreddy on 4/25/2013 6:27:41 AM , Rating: 1
Bush was a better president on his worst day than Obama on his best. And Bush was not the most wonderful. So just remember when you insult Bush you even more insult Obama.

RE: Why bother?
By delphinus100 on 4/26/2013 2:26:06 AM , Rating: 2
Were I to filter it through your opinion, I suppose so...

RE: Why bother?
By JPQed on 5/7/2013 2:18:05 PM , Rating: 2
I bet there were critics just like you when Columbus first set sail 600 years ago.

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