Earlier this week, NASA Chief Bridenstine met with the Senate to assure them that Space Directive One, as laid out earlier this year by President Trump was well underway.
During this meeting, he explained that low Earth orbit needs to be driven by commercial enterprise. “And that’s underway right now.”
To accomplish this, NASA plans to use “Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLIPS).” This would give commercial companies the opportunity to land on the moon and NASA will become a paying customer of that. This falls in line with a recent announcement by SpaceX.
The company stated that should development and testing of the BFR (Big Falcon Rocket) go smoothly, they have plans to launch the first orbital flights of the 100-passenger spaceship by 2020 or 2021 at the earliest.
NASA’s next plan will be heavier landers capable of heavier payloads as well as prospectors, “…things that can dig,” said Bridenstine. “We know from NASA’s achievements back from 2008 and 2009, we know that there are potentially hundreds of billions of tons of water ice on the moon. Beyond that we need heavier landers that can take humans to the moon.”
Parallel to this plan, SpaceX also recently entered into a contract with iSpace. This Japanese start-up company is set to launch its lunar lander and mini-rovers aboard the Falcon 9 rockets in 2020 and 2021.
Further, NASA plans to use Tugs (commercial spacecraft like the Falcon 9) that go from low earth orbit to the Gateway, and from the gateway to the surface of the moon.
“These become a critical part of the infrastructure that can be used to capitalize on, with the commercial partners and international partners,” Bridenstine said. The potential of the Gateway is exciting because it gives more access to more parts of the solar system than ever before.
To help best utilize the new NASA budget for these initiatives, Bridenstine stated “Under the president’s budget request, the International Space Station will no longer receive direct support in the year 2025.”
Meanwhile, SpaceX has been planning a similar venture starting with a mission called #dearMoon that could lift off by 2023 on a week-long journey around the moon and back again. This first lunar flight would have the first paying passengers on board: Japanese billionaire, Yusaku Maezawa as well as six to eight artists.
One of the ideas for a lunar base or permanent settlement being considered is the potential for something below the lunar surface. Staying below the surface could give the possible benefit of better protection from harmful solar radiation than anything man-made above ground.
To explore the viability of this, scientists have been practicing at Lava Beds National Monument in California. During their time in the lava tubes, three types of portable technologies are being evaluated: ground-penetrating radar, a magnetometer, and a gravimeter. Hopefully these evaluations will help future lunar settlers map lava tubes from the surface in order gauge the stability of each prior to entering.
Once we have mastered how to survive and build on the moon, we can begin moving on to other worlds like Mars. Especially since launching from the moon requires far less fuel to reach escape velocity.
And with both NASA and SpaceX aiming for the moon within the next decade, establishing a base on Mars seems more like more science fact than science fiction.