In Popular Science, Sarah Fecht dangles the tantalizing prospect that we may be over-estimating the costs of colonizing the Moon by a huge margin:
Only 12 people have walked on the moon, and we haven’t been back since 1972. But a new NASA-commission study has found that we can now afford to set up a permanent base on the moon, by mining for lunar resources and partnering with private companies.
Returning humans to the moon could cost 90 percent less than expected, bringing estimated costs down from $100 billion to $10 billion. That’s something that NASA could afford on its current deep space human spaceflight budget.
“A factor of ten reduction in cost changes everything,” said Mark Hopkins, executive committee chair of the National Space Society, in a press release.
The study, released today, was conducted by the National Space Society and the Space Frontier Foundation — two non-profit organizations that advocate building human settlements beyond Earth — and it was reviewed by an independent team of former NASA executives, astronauts, and space policy experts.
To dramatically reduce costs, NASA would have to take advantage of private and international partnerships — perhaps one of which would be the European Space Agency, whose director recently announced that he wants to build a town on the moon. The new estimates also assume that Boeing and SpaceX, NASA’s commercial crew partners, will be involved and competing for contracts. SpaceX famously spent just $443 million developing its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon crew capsule, where NASA would have spent $4 billion. The authors of the new report are hoping that 89 percent discount will extend beyond low Earth orbit as well.
Similar to SpaceX’s goals of creating a reusable rocket, the plan also relies on the development of reusable spacecraft and lunar landers to reduce costs.
Plus, mining fuel from the lunar surface could make going back to the moon economically viable. Data from the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) suggest that water ice may be plentiful on the moon, especially near the poles. That’s important because water can be broken down into hydrogen propellant for rockets (and, conveniently, oxygen for humans to breathe).