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

"So, I think the same thing of the music industry. They can't say that they're losing money, you know what I'm saying. They just probably don't have the same surplus that they had." -- Wu-Tang Clan founder RZA

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