Cost of Returning to the Moon Reduced by a Factor of Ten

By Mark Hopkins (Winter 2015)

On July 20, 2015, the National Space Society (NSS) and the Space Frontier Foundation (SFF) held a press conference at the prestigious National Press Club in Washington, D.C. This date was the 46th anniversary of the first human landing on the Moon. Buzz Aldrin, the man who was the pilot for that landing, was one of the speakers.

The press conference was held because of the importance of the just-completed NASA-funded Evolvable Lunar Architecture (ELA) study and because of NSS’ Strategic Plan, which stresses the promotion of key ideas. Central to the study were the use of lunar materials, commercial space, and eventual lunar settlement—all ideas that NSS has promoted for decades. The study found that we can return to the Moon at a cost that is an order of magnitude (a factor of 10) below the cost of earlier studies.

A factor of 10 cost reduction changes everything! It is loosely equivalent to saying that the benefits of returning to the Moon, for whatever reasons, just went up by a factor of 10!

The key reasons for the cost reduction are the discovery of water on the Moon and the recent success of commercial space in general and the COTS program in particular. Water on the Moon can be broken up into hydrogen and oxygen, which make an excellent rocket fuel. This means that spaceships can be refueled for returns to Earth rather than having to bring the fuel from Earth—greatly reducing costs. The COTS program utilized a public-private partnership where private companies, such as SpaceX, pay for much of the development costs, thus incentivizing them to be efficient. COTS has demonstrated order of magnitude cost reductions for the development of rockets. The ELA study uses a COTS-like approach. Earlier in the last year two workshops, both co-sponsored by NSS, found similar results. The NASA-funded ELA study examined the relevant issues in much greater detail.

This issue of Ad Astra includes a detailed article about the study by Charles Miller and Sarah Preston. Miller is the study’s principal investigator. He is also a former administrator of NSS. The study’s full name is “Economic Assessment and Systems Analysis of an Evolvable Lunar Architecture that Leverages Commercial Space Capabilities and Public-Private Partnerships.”

The press conference was a smashing success. Our Associated Press release was repeated word for word on at least 267 blogs and websites, which have a combined potential audience of 230,842,700. In addition, at least 77 articles were written, including many in prestigious places, such as the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, U.S. News and World Report, the Houston Chronicle, Space News, the Christian Science Monitor, Popular Mechanics, the Discovery Channel, and Popular Science.

The big picture implications of the ELA study are profound. Utilizing a COTS-like approach could dramatically reduce the cost of other space projects, such as Mars exploration. More importantly, all of this suggests that humanity’s drive into space toward settlement, and the utilization of its vast resources will happen much faster than previously thought. We are winning!

This article was written by Mark Hopkins, Chairman of the Executive Committee of the National Space Society. The article originally appeared in Ad Astra, Winter 2015.

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