NASA and Bigelow Aerospace Sign Lunar Base Deal
April 23, 2013 9:44 AM
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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.
Nine years ago President Bush called on the U.S. to colonize the Moon. [Image Source: EPA]
In a speech he
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 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
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 [
] and a recent
University of Kansas
School of Business
[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'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
with the intent of developing a design for a lunar outpost.
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.
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.
Space Industry News
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4/23/2013 5:02:25 PM
I noticed the budget chart which looks like NASA has been pretty flat since the early moon missions. I'd be interested to see the real dollar numbers for that budget. I'm only asking because I have a sense that the US budget has increased since the 60s and so 2% of a much larger number would be a much bigger number. It would make the point a little more clearly for me to see that they used to spend $10B and now they spend $1B or something like that.
I'm a big fan of the gov't spending on these type of big projects. My sense is that they pay big dividends in the future and aren't generally projects that the private sector can support. That's my take at least.
RE: Real Dollars?
4/24/2013 11:27:44 AM
Google and wikipedia are your friends.
spending on nasa is lower then it was in 1960 in terms of percentages of government spending, but only half of what it was at it's peak in constant dollars.
The reason why nothing gets done though is because you can't look at a single year. From 1959 to 1970 pretty much all of the budget was going to getting up there in the first place, then getting to the moon and that's it.
While today's budget is expected to get us to the moon, a asteroid, mars, send rovers, bring up sattelites, maintain space stations, and build launch vehicles. All within 8 years because the next president will decide to do something else with the same money yet again.
A complete lack of focus. Brought on by a lack of a enemy the US can rally against. I don't think any average US citizen belives the chinese will make it to the moon, or the russians, and if they do they'd only be as far "as the US was 50 years ago". So there's no real support for it either.
If the public really wanted a lunar colony, newt gingrich would've gotten votes instead of ridicule. A ambitious idea alone isn't enough for the citizens of the US. You need somebody else to go for it first, so you can beat them.
"If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion." -- Scientology founder L. Ron. Hubbard
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