Study: Returning Astronauts to Moon Cheaper Than Thought

The moon rising over Half Moon Bay, California on Halloween 2009. (Credit: Douglas Messier)
The moon rising over Half Moon Bay, California on Halloween 2009. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

A new study published last week has put forth an “Evolvable Lunar Architecture” (ELA) that it claims would reduce the projected cost a returning humans to the moon by up to 90 percent.

The study, “Economic Assessment and Systems Analysis of an Evolvable Lunar Architecture that Leverages Commercial Space Capabilities and Public-Private-Partnerships,” finds that the  projected cost of returning to the moon could be reduced from about $100 billion to about $10 billion (plus or minus 30 percent) using private-public partnerships that leverage emerging commercial capabilities.

“The ELA strategic objective is commercial mining of propellant from lunar poles where it will be transported to lunar orbit to be used by NASA to send humans to Mars,” according to the report’s executive summary. “The study assumed A) that the United States is willing to lead an international partnership of countries that leverages private industry capabilities, and B) public-private-partnership models proven in recent years by NASA and other government agencies.”

The study estimates that NASA could return astronauts to the moon within five to seven years using two independent commercial providers. The initial landing could be followed up within 10 to 12 years with a permanent industrial base capable of providing 200 MT of propellant annually for a cost of $40 billion (plus or minus 30 percent).

“An International Lunar Authority, modeled after CERN and traditional public infrastructure authorities, may be the most advantageous mechanism for managing the combined business and technical risks associated with affordable and sustainable lunar development and operations,” the report states.

The Space Frontier Foundation and the National Space Society endorsed the conclusions of the report.

“The Space Frontier Foundation supports and recommends public-private partnerships in all proposed human spaceflight programs in order to reduce costs and enable these missions that were previously unaffordable,” said the Space Frontier Foundation’s Chairman of the Board, Jeff Feige. “This is the way that America will settle the final frontier, save taxpayers money and usher in a new era of economic growth and STEM innovation.”

NSS Executive Committee Chairman Mark Hopkins added, “The NSS congratulates NASA for funding the team at NexGen that discovered how such cost reductions are possible. A factor of ten reduction in cost changes everything.”

The executive summary follows.

Economic Assessment and Systems Analysis of an Evolvable Lunar Architecture that Leverages Commercial Space Capabilities and Public-Private-Partnership

Executive Summary

This study’s primary purpose was to assess the feasibility of new approaches for achieving our national goals in space. NexGen assembled a team of former NASA executives and engineers who assessed the economic and technical viability of an “Evolvable Lunar Architecture” (ELA) that leverages commercial capabilities and services that are existing or likely to emerge in the near-term.

We evaluated an ELA concept that was designed as an incremental, low-cost and low-risk method for returning humans to the Moon in a manner that directly supports NASA’s long-term plan to send humans to Mars. The ELA strategic objective is commercial mining of propellant from lunar poles where it will be transported to lunar orbit to be used by NASA to send humans to Mars. The study assumed A) that the United States is willing to lead an international partnership of countries that leverages private industry capabilities, and B) public-private-partnership models proven in recent years by NASA and other government agencies.

Based on these assumptions, the our analysis concludes that:

  • Based on the experience of recent NASA program innovations, such as the COTS program, a human return to the Moon may not be as expensive as previously thought.
  • America could lead a return of humans to the surface of the Moon within a period of 5-7 years from authority to proceed at an estimated total cost of about $10 Billion (+/- 30%) for two independent and competing commercial service providers, or about $5 Billion for each provider, using partnership methods.
  • America could lead the development of a permanent industrial base on the Moon of 4 private-sector astronauts in about 10-12 years after setting foot on the Moon that could provide 200 MT of propellant per year in lunar orbit for NASA for a total cost of about $40 Billion (+/- 30%).
  • Assuming NASA receives a flat budget, these results could potentially be achieved within NASA’s existing deep space human spaceflight budget.
  • A commercial lunar base providing propellant in lunar orbit might substantially reduce the cost and risk NASA of sending humans to Mars. The ELA would reduce the number of required Space Launch System (SLS) launches from as many as 12 to a total of only 3, thereby reducing SLS operational risks, and increasing its affordability.
  • An International Lunar Authority, modeled after CERN and traditional public infrastructure authorities, may be the most advantageous mechanism for managing the combined business and technical risks associated with affordable and sustainable lunar development and operations.
  • A permanent commercial lunar base might substantially pay for its operations by exporting propellant to lunar orbit for sale to NASA and others to send humans to Mars, thus enabling the economic development of the Moon at a small marginal cost.
  • To the extent that national decision-makers value the possibility of economical production of propellant at the lunar poles, it needs to be a priority to send robotic prospectors to the lunar poles to confirm that water (or hydrogen) is economically accessible near the surface inside the lunar craters at the poles.
  • The public benefits of building an affordable commercial industrial base on the Moon include economic growth, national security, advances in select areas of technology and innovation, public inspiration, and a message to the world about American leadership and the long-term future of democracy and free markets.

An independent review team — led by Mr. Joe Rothenberg, former head of NASA human spaceflight — and composed of former NASA executives, former NASA astronauts, commercial space executives, and space policy experts — reviewed our analysis and concluded that “Given the study scope, schedule and funding we believe the team has done an excellent job in developing a conceptual architecture that will provide a starting point for trade studies to evaluate the architectural and design choices.”

DISCLAIMER: This was a limited study that evaluated two specific technical approaches for one architectural strategy that leverages commercial partnerships to return to the Moon. We did not evaluate all alternatives for returning to the Moon, nor did we evaluate using similar partnership methods for alternative destinations or purposes. While funded by NASA, the conclusions in this study are solely those of the NexGen study team authors.