Robotic Space Exploration: The Next Policy Battleground?

Bruce Springsteen (Credit: Helge Øverås)

On May 9, 1974, a little known band opened for Bonnie Raitt at the Harvard Square Theater in Cambridge. As luck should have it, influential music critic Jon Landau was in the audience as the group ripped through a set. “I saw my rock and roll past flash before my eyes,” he later wrote. “I saw something else: I saw rock and roll’s future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.”

I think I witnessed a similar moment last night. Not in a smoky theater in Massachusetts, but in a conference room on the other side of the continent. And it involved not rock and roll but space.

The performer was David Gump, the mild-mannered CEO of Astrobotic Technology. And he gave a private talk to potential investors on his company’s plans to explore the moon on a commercial basis during an event sponsored by the Silicon Valley Space Business Roundtable held at NASA Ames.

Up first: sending a rover to the moon to claim the $20 million Google Lunar X Prize (GLXP). After that, repeated visits to the lunar surface carrying both government and private payloads.

It was fascinating: I’ve been covering the GLXP competitors, but had never seen anyone lay out an actual business case for how a company would make money off of lunar exploration.

Unfortunately, I can’t recount any of the specifics of Gump’s off-the-record talk. But, I can say generally that the scope of Astrobotic’s vision is vast. The business model seems solid. And if they can pull it off, then commercial operations on the moon are only two to three years away.

The implications of this new approach are far reaching — and only dimly understood. The era of government space agency’s sending expensive robotic spacecraft to our closest celestial neighbor would slowly come to a close. Governments would send their payloads to the moon aboard private ships that could be built quicker and cheaper, much as NASA wants to send its astronauts into orbit commercially. Jobs could be threatened, resulting in bitter policy disputes.

Spacecraft would fly to the moon more frequently. Precursor work for human exploration would become cheaper. And as private operations grew on the moon, the world would face sticky questions about resource utilization and ownership of a world that has been the common heritage of all mankind.

But all that lies in an uncertain future. The odds for any start-up are long. And many obstacles remain. A key question that Astrobotic — and all of its GLXP competitors — face is how to balance low costs vs. catastrophic failure. NASA has paid a steep price many times for pushing that line too hard.

Jon Landau was right about Springsteen. Time will tell whether I’m right about this. I can only hope so. It would be awesome.