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Bigelow lunar base illustration
Bigelow Aerospace, which has long-term plans for human lunar bases, is one of several companies interested in lunar exploration. (credit: Bigelow Aerospace)

Competing forums: an asteroid or the Moon?


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There’s been a lot of debate about NASA and what the next step in human spaceflight should be. Now that humanity has established something of a foothold in low Earth orbit, we have the opportunity to broaden our horizons. In an attempt to make the most of this opportunity, a political, economic, and scientific tug-of-war between the “asteroid path” and the “Moon path” has emerged in recent years. This debate is illustrated by a pair of competing forums held in late March by the George C. Marshall Institute and NASA.

One argument for the Moon path is that Bigelow claims to be capable of adapting their technologies for potential lunar missions in a relatively short timeframe. This would provide a good foundation for advancing habitation capabilities that could lead to independent extraterrestrial outposts.

On March 25, the Marshall Institute hosted a forum titled “Human Settlement in Space: The Moon’s Challenges and Opportunities,” featuring Dr. Paul D. Spudis, Mike Gold, and Dr. Haym Benaroya (corresponding presentations are available on the Marshall Institute’s website). The panelists presented an argument for a Moon strategy that would build extraterrestrial habitat capabilities and develop in situ resource utilization to prepare for longer duration missions to Mars. Eventually, technology and experience resulting from Moon bases could enable independent Moon and Martian colonies, an enormous achievement in human spaceflight.

Dr. Spudis opened the talk with an overview of arguments for returning to the Moon. Most appealing is its proximity, scientific opportunities, and its use for developing various capabilities, such as lunar resource utilization. Spudis delved into the goal of human settlement of the Moon and the potential for all human necessities to be supplied from local material and energy resources. He then presented detailed requirements of a colony and the optimal locations for various tasks on the Moon.

The conversation shifted from technical obstacles and objectives to the impact that developing independent human outposts would have on human spaceflight. Mike Gold discussed Bigelow Aerospace’s development and testing of various inflatable modules that are intended to support humans in orbit, as well as lunar bases that could provide the company with another source of revenue. One argument for the Moon path is that Bigelow claims to be capable of adapting their technologies for potential lunar missions in a relatively short timeframe. This would provide a good foundation for advancing habitation capabilities that could lead to independent extraterrestrial outposts.

NASA held its Asteroid Initiative Opportunities Forum on March 26 to provide the public with updates on its Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) studies, which is the agency’s current direction regarding human spaceflight. NASA used the event to emphasize that ARM, including sending humans to a captured asteroid in cislunar space, would aid in the development of crucial technologies needed for Mars missions.

NASA’s forum conveyed a picture of an asteroid retrieval by providing potential target asteroids and various mission options. Even so, such supporting knowledge for ARM is arguably lacking, even after the forum’s contribution to filling gaps in knowledge about the mission concept. Congressman Lamar Smith expressed his doubts regarding ARM at the March 27th hearing on the 2015 NASA budget by saying, “They still don’t have a budget, they still don’t have an asteroid, and they still don’t have a launch date. That doesn’t sound to me like a very serious program.” (see “After a year, NASA’s asteroid mission still seeks definition”, The Space Review, March 31, 2014) Viewed side-by-side with Dr. Spudis’ presentation, a Moon mission proposal might seem more detailed than ARM has been thus far. Pending funding for continued investigation, the newly reorganized asteroid mission concept team should be able to present more solid mission details by the time of the Mission Concept Review (MCR), planned for early 2015.

The Marshall Institute’s discussion also focused on the economic potential of a sustainable infrastructure on the Moon. Helium-3 and its benefits are one prospective boon, but the myriad economic opportunities associated with mining, transportation, and habitation also present an alluring proposal from a commercial perspective. NASA did not discuss the economic argument of an asteroid mission as strongly as it could have, but it did discuss cooperation with commercial entities during ARM at the forum. That includes incorporating secondary payloads in possible mission designs; payload proposals will be reviewed in the coming months. Secondary payloads could benefit asteroid mining through technology development and prospecting. The recent activity and major funding of private entities interested in asteroid mining and other forms of space-based resource development presents a powerful counterargument to the Moon’s economic appeal.

Commercial developments are loosening government’s dominant position in human spaceflight. Given sufficient financial backing—a hurdle that competitive launch prices could help reduce—advocates of Moon, asteroid, and other missions are gaining the capability of deciding their own fate.

The economic allure of both the Moon and asteroids raises the point that NASA’s choice of path does not preclude the other mission from being accomplished. Due to this economic attraction, there will likely be commercial actors that wish to venture to asteroids and/or the Moon. With competitions like the Google Lunar X PRIZE and NASA’s encouragement of the commercial space industry, both lunar and asteroid missions could come to fruition without NASA’s lead, but regulatory uncertainty and other forms of risk may hinder their progress.

Appreciating that commercial entities, as well as international partners, can play a large role in accomplishing both an asteroid mission and a Moon mission is an important consideration to take away from these forums. This reduces how important NASA’s choice of path will have on human spaceflight. Instead of focusing on recapturing NASA’s attention to focus on a particular pathway, proponents of said pathway should work to prepare the regulatory and technical environment to facilitate and entice other actors to pick up the slack where NASA is absent.

As earlier noted, Mike Gold discussed Bigelow Aerospace’s role in developing inflatable modules that may benefit a Moon mission. His company’s interactions with NASA support the idea that the agency’s choice of mission is not the end of the road for the Moon path. Bigelow has scheduled tests of its BEAM module aboard the ISS in cooperation with NASA. The space agency appears to be both able and willing to support commercial endeavors that help humanity toward a sustainable return to the Moon. The Commercial Crew program and related initiatives can pave the way for cheaper and more flexible transportation to the Moon and other destinations. As the Marshall Institute panel may have unintentionally indicated, these commercial developments are loosening government’s dominant position in human spaceflight. Given sufficient financial backing—a hurdle that competitive launch prices could help reduce—advocates of Moon, asteroid, and other missions are gaining the capability of deciding their own fate.

In conclusion, the global space community is capable of accomplishing a great deal more than a single mission at a time, especially if there is an economic appeal. NASA professes to be interested in continuing to partake in missions to the Moon, but it wants to distribute the workload. At the asteroid forum, Jason Crusan, Director of Advanced Exploration Systems at NASA, stated that NASA wants to move forward “working with our international partners in cislunar space as they proceed to international or potentially commercial options for the Moon.” Therefore, NASA’s choice of pursuing an asteroid mission will not risk surrendering the Moon to “rogue communist states” or any other rhetoric that has been posed. Rather, a much greater danger for NASA and human spaceflight as a whole is remaining stagnant and uncertain while other nations steadily develop their capabilities. NASA has chosen its path. Now it needs to earn and gain the support that will ensure the successful and timely completion of the Asteroid Redirect Mission.


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