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Going back to the Moon will not break the bank, NASA says chief

Artist illustration of NASA’s planned Moon-Orbital Platform-Gateway outpost (on the left), is approached by an Orion spacecraft.

(NASA)

MOFFETT FIELD, California. — Send the man back to the moon does not require a large Apollo-style budget boost, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said.

During the height of the Apollo program in the mid-1960s, NASA consumed about 4.5 percent of the federal budget. This massive influx of resources helped the space agency to make good on President John F. Kennedy’s famous 1961 promise to get astronauts to the moon, and safely back home on Earth, for the end of the decade.

NASA’s budget share now hovers around 0.5 percent. But something in that range should be enough to mount manned moon missions in the next 10 years or so, as President, Donald Trump has instructed NASA to do with his Space Policy Directive 1, Bridenstine told reporters yesterday (Aug. 30) here at NASA’s Ames Research Center. [Photos: President Trump Aims for the Moon with the Space Policy Directive 1]

The key is not to go and continue to get relatively modest, but important, financial bumps, he added. (Congress allocated more than $20.7 billion to NASA in 2018 the omnibus spending bill — about $1.1 billion more than the agency received in the previous year omnibus bill.)

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“We now have more space agencies on the planet’s surface than we have ever had. And even countries which do not have a space agency — they have space activities, and they want to work with us on our return to the moon,” Bridenstine said in answer to a question of Space.com.

“And, at the same time, we have a strong commercial market of people who have access to that historical existence,” the NASA chief added. “So, between our international and commercial partners and our higher budget, I think we are in good shape for the achievement of the objectives of the Space Policy Directive 1.”

Those objectives call for a sustainable human return to the moon, beyond the transient, flags-and-footprints approach of Apollo. The establishment of a permanent presence on and around the moon is a goal in itself, but will also learn how NASA and its partners the techniques and skills that are required to even further into the solar system, to Mars and beyond, Bridenstine and other authorities, officials have said.

For example, the water ice mined from permanently shaded craters near the moon’s poles could be split into its constituent hydrogen and oxygen — prime components of rocket fuel. This fuel can then be drawn that the outside of the Earth’s deposits, which could fill the tanks of spaceships on the way to Mars or other distant destinations. This strategy can spur a new era of discovery, to liberate mankind from the need to launch vast quantities of fuel on Earth, the great force of gravity and the space-mining advocates have emphasized.

The centerpiece of the NASA’s manned moon plans, at least in the short term, is the Moon-Orbital Platform-Gateway. This is a small, moon-space station will be assembled and visited with the aid of NASA’s Space Launch System megarocket, and the Orion capsule, both of which are in development.

The Gateway will be for three or four astronauts for a month or two at a time, and act as a hub for robotics and human exploration of the lunar surface, NASA officials have said. [Moon Base Visions: How to Build a Lunar Colony (Photos)]

The first element of the Gateway — the power and the propulsion of the module is scheduled to launch in 2022. Other important pieces will be lofted shortly thereafter. If all goes according to plan, astronauts will be able to visit the outpost as early as 2024 and start making trips to the lunar surface a few years later, before the end of 2020, NASA officials have said.

That will be a milestone if it happens; no boots have been pressed into the gray lunar dirt since the Apollo 17 astronauts departed to return to Earth in 1972.

The Gateway is compatible with a variety of vehicles, for promotion of the cooperation that the NASA officials deem so crucial.

“We want a strong partnership, not only commercially, but also internationally, so that we can do more than we have ever done for the design and construction of this sustainable architecture that our direction on the basis of the space policy Directive 1,” Bridenstine said.

Indeed, NASA is encouraging the progress of private landers, such as those in development by the American companies Blue Origin, the Moon Express and Astrobotic. The agency plans to buy some trips down to the lunar surface on board commercial vessels, in place of the construction or the purchase of each moon lander itself.

Eventually, commercial vehicles can even ferry NASA astronauts — not only robot payloads — the Gateway to the surface of the moon and back, Bridenstine said.

This approach is in accordance with the agency’s recent push to commercialize low Earth orbit. SpaceX and Northrop Grumman already launch uncrewed cargo missions to the International space station for NASA, SpaceX and Boeing, both multibillion-dollar deals to ferry agency astronauts to and from the orbiting lab. The first manned flights of these private astronaut taxis are planned for next year.

Originally published on Space.com.

 

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