New NASA study outlines return trip to the moon, with a base by 2035

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Jul 23, 2015, 7:52 PM EDT

We already have the new head of the European Space Agency pushing for a full-on “moon village,” and now it seems NASA is plotting the course for its own moon base within the next two decades.

A new, NASA-funded study conducted by NextGen Space LLC has determined the U.S. can make it back to the moon within the decade, and have a permanent base there the decade after that. The best part: The study claims to have figured out a way to cut the cost “by a factor of 10” when compared to other moon base proposals, which means it could conceivably fit into NASA’s ever-dwindling budget.

The trick? Use the same principles already in place for the International Space Station, which is taking advantage of public-private partnerships with companies like SpaceX. The first manned missions to the ISS via the public-private deals are set to ramp up soon-ish, and if that goes smoothly, the study notes, a moon mission could fit the same model.

Here are the raw numbers, via The Verge, for where those savings come in: It costs NASA $4,750 per kilogram to get something into orbit with SpaceX’s Saturn 9 rocket, which is just a fraction of the $46,000 per kilogram it cost during the Apollo era, or the $60,000 it cost with the space shuttle program. SpaceX’s new rocket the Falcon Heavy would have the juice to get us back to the moon, and the cost per kilogram should be comparable to the Saturn 9. So, theoretically, the moon is back within reach. 

The money for the proposal, which totals around $10 billion over 5-7 years, would theoretically be shifted out of NASA’s own Space Launch System (SLS), which is planning some orbital missions to the moon (but currently no actual human landings). By cutting back on that project and spending the money on a public-private partnership to develop some crew capsules and commercial crafts with companies like SpaceX, Boeing, etc.

The study also notes a hydrogen mining operation could help recoup some costs and spur economic interest in getting back to the moon. Ideally, the hydrogen mined on the moon could be turned into cryogenic propellant, which could help fuel future missions — or even that long-fabled trip to Mars.

The study is ambitious, to say the least, but it’s worth noting it was vetted by a 21-person independent review team comprised of former NASA's administration, astronauts and representatives from the commercial spaceflight field. So, these guys do know what they’re talking about. Of course, that doesn’t mean NASA is actually listening.

What do you think? Is this a solid plan? Should we build a moon base?

(Via The Verge, Space Frontier Foundation)