The moon — that cold, gray outpost that NASA last visited 45 years ago — is hot again.
The vice president says so. So do Elon Musk and Jeffrey P. Bezos. And as the Trump administration sets its sights on the lunar surface, a growing number of companies say they are ready for the challenge.
The latest is Bigelow Aerospace, the Las Vegas-based maker of inflatable space habitats. In an announcement Tuesday, the company that it is hoping to send one of its space stations to lunar orbit by 2022 in partnership with the United Launch Alliance, the joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing.
Bigelow, run by multimillionaire Robert Bigelow, the founder of Budget Suites of America, has spent hundreds of millions of dollars developing space habitats made from Kevlar-like material that are inflated once in space. One of its smaller habitats, known as the BEAM, is currently attached to the International Station, where it’s been tested for months.
Now Bigelow Aerospace proposes sending a much larger version, known as the B330, into orbit around the moon. If NASA goes for it, the $2.3 billion mission would go something like this:
The habitat would launch on ULA’s Vulcan rocket into low Earth orbit, where it would stay for a period of months, receiving supplies and cargo, while it underwent testing to make sure everything was working properly.
Then a space tug would ferry it from Earth orbit to lunar orbit, where it would essentially become a space station for the moon.
In laying out his plan during an interview Tuesday, Bigelow said he was well aware of the political and industry implications in such a mission. The Trump administration is looking for a first-term coup, and, he said, this “can actually be done within one administration.”
NASA also needs a destination for the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft it has been developing for years and at great expense, he said.
Furthermore, his plan could involve different sectors of the growing space industry — which the Trump administration has said it wants to help foster. While the ULA would launch the B330, Musk’s SpaceX could resupply it while in Earth orbit, Bigelow said.
Bezos’s Blue Origin has said it is developing a lunar lander that could ferry supplies to the surface of the moon. Bezos, who owns The Washington Post, has said “it’s time to go back to the moon — this time to stay.”
And during a recent speech, Musk said “it’s 2017. We should have a lunar base by now. What the hell has been going on?”
Other companies are interested as well. Moon Express says it plans on sending a lunar lander to the moon by next year. Astrobotic and Masten Space Systems are also working with NASA to develop vehicles that could touch down on the surface of the moon.
And during a recent speech, Vice President Pence vowed to “return American astronauts to the moon, not only to leave behind footprints and flags, but to build the foundation we need to send Americans to Mars and beyond.”
All of which adds up to a growing momentum for a return to the moon since Gene Cernan became the last man to walk on the lunar surface in 1972.
“We don’t want to see another 45 years go by,” Bigelow said. “Something needs to happen.”
The question now is, will NASA go for it?
It didn't say for sure, but offered this statement in response:
"NASA is excited to see continued global interest in moving human exploration farther into the solar system. A sustainable crew presence in deep space will require the best of NASA, our international partners and the private sector."