Late last year, President Donald Trump directed NASA to “lead the return of humans to the moon.” For most folks, the meaning of this was pretty clear: Americans would soon walk on the moon again.
The space agency, however, had another idea. In February, NASA announced that it is planning to build the Gateway, a mini-space station that would orbit the moon — for no apparent reason.
The vague description of the space station on NASA’s website offers little clarity. There’s no certainty as to when it would be built, what it would be used for or why it is needed. Half a billion dollars are already dedicated to the Gateway this fiscal year without any obvious plan to do anything with the money except spend it. Beyond that, the budget isn’t known but is certain to be huge. NASA further revealed the obtuseness of the project by noting that it doesn’t know whether it would be permanently crewed or only occasionally visited or what exactly the astronauts would do when aboard.
As for landing people on the moon, NASA is vague about that, too. Apparently, if we wanted to build a lander sometime in the future, it would rendezvous with the Gateway for some reason and then attempt a landing.
Rather than build this murky Gateway, which we frankly doubt the American people will understand or support, we believe the best expenditure of time and money is to simply make it a national goal to build a base on the lunar surface. Such a base would be similar to the U.S. South Pole Station and constructed for the same reasons: science, exploration, knowledge, national prestige, and economic and technological development for the benefit of the U.S. taxpayer.
This plan, which we call Moon Direct, doesn’t take rocket scientists to comprehend (although we both hold that title). And we could accomplish it in just three discrete phases: First, we deliver cargo to the lunar surface and initiate robotic construction. Second, we land crews on the base, complete construction and develop local resources. And third, we establish long-term habitation and exploration.
SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy booster, which can launch 60 tons to Earth orbit and 10 tons to the moon, could easily handle the first phase.
The key to crew operations, the second phase of building our moon base, is a spacecraft we call the Lunar Excursion Vehicle, which would operate outside our atmosphere and therefore need no heavy heat shields or Earth landing systems. The LEV would fly from Earth’s orbit to the lunar surface and back again. Nothing could be simpler.
A key goal of the second phase is to get propellant production going on the moon. Until it is, we would send the LEV with fuel for the round trip on a heavy-lift rocket to orbit, followed by a relatively cheap, medium-lift rocket with the crew.
The third phase would have continuous operations, including propellant production on the lunar surface. With this infrastructure, all it would take to get to the moon is a medium-lift rocket and the clear weather to launch it.
Let’s put aside these murky plans to orbit the moon in a can for no good reason. Let’s build a base on the moon where not only Americans can take small steps in the peaceful pursuit of knowledge but also where the world can take giant leaps toward opening a new frontier.
Robert Zubrin is president of the Mars Society and Pioneer Astronautics and the author of “The Case for Mars.” Homer Hickam is a former NASA engineer and the author of multiple books, including the memoir “Rocket Boys,” which was made into the film “October Sky.”