The moon sets behind the Lincoln Memorial as people on steps watch the sun rise across the other end of the Mall in Washington March 31. (J. David Ake/AP)
Reporter

Imagine blasting off from Earth in a rocket ship, stopping at a rest stop on the moon to refuel and then heading out to Mars or an asteroid.

To space experts, this is a possibility that might happen in some of our lifetimes. But President Trump's commerce secretary says it's likely to happen far sooner than that.

“You're going to end up with the moon being a type of gas station,” said Wilbur Ross in an interview Friday at the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing conference.

Asked whether a gas station on the moon would happen in the next decade, Ross replied: It's coming “a lot sooner than that.”

NASA scientists have been studying the idea of having some sort of landing and refueling station on the moon — or near it. It's difficult to send rockets from Earth directly to Mars or an asteroid because they need to carry large amounts of fuel to go such a long distance.

Making a pit stop near the moon could be ideal because, as scientists recently discovered, there's water on the moon. That's key, because the elements that make up water — hydrogen and oxygen — are used for rocket fuel.

But right now, it's just an idea on paper. It will take years to build anything like a “gas station,” experts say, and it might not be feasible. NASA will need consistent funding, and the president and Congress can't change their minds about the mission, as has happened in the past.

Then there's the big question about whether the water on the moon is usable for rocket fuel. It's unclear how much is there or how easy it would be to extract.

“We are very sure there is water there, but questions remain about exactly how much is there and what form it is in,” said Bethany Ehlmann, professor of planetary science at Caltech who has worked on the Mars rovers.

Every scientist, astronaut and space policy expert with whom The Washington Post spoke said the “gas station” Ross mentioned is at least a decade away, if it even happens.

“I would categorize it as extremely optimistic thinking to do a gas station in 10 years,” said John Logsdon, professor emeritus and founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, although he added that “some of this will happen in people's lifetimes.”

Ross talks about a “gas station” on the surface of the moon, but NASA's current plan is to build a “lunar outpost” that is in the moon's orbit. The official name of the project is the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, and the first part of the gateway is targeted for launch in 2022.

The gateway is mainly meant to function as a research and exploration base that can ultimately host humans, similar to the International Space Station.

“None of this exists yet,” Logsdon said. “We don't even have the rocket we are going to use operating yet.”

NASA is working on a new launch system (dubbed the Space Launch System) with the goal of a first launch in 2020, a reminder that many elements have to fall into place for the Trump administration's vision to come to pass.

Ross says there are huge incentives to develop this “gas station,” because humans have a lot of reasons to be in space more often: space tourism, for example, or the mining of gold and platinum from asteroids.

“Space is already a $340 billion business. We think it will be into the trillions within not a huge number of years,” Ross said. “Space is the next truly huge frontier and a huge, huge opportunity for the United States.”

Ross is a member of Trump's National Space Council that is quickly reimagining America's future in space. The Trump administration has scrapped plans to go to Mars and has directed NASA to focus on the moon. The hope is that once the United States returns to the moon, it will be easier to get to Mars — and beyond.

There are concerns that some scientific research projects might get the ax as the Trump administration shifts resources. The administration has proposed making the International Space Station a commercial venture in a few years, and NASA recently canceled plans for a moon rover, although recently confirmed NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted Friday that more scientific missions are coming soon: “We’re committed to lunar exploration @NASA ... More landers. More science. More exploration. More prospectors. More commercial partners. Ad astra!” (Latin for “to the stars”).

Ross is getting more heavily involved in space policy because of the growth of private companies such as Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeffrey P. Bezos's Blue Origin in space travel, exploration and commercial activities. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.) The commerce secretary has promised more “sensible” regulation of the blossoming industry, including how to manage the many satellites circling Earth.

Whether a “gas station” will be built is uncertain, but the race for the United States to return to the moon and build a presence there has begun. But even the lunar gateway might not be finished before Trump leaves office.

“The Trump administration is likely to get credit for starting this, but it's probably going to get finished on another president's watch,” said a former NASA official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak freely.

Staff writer Christian Davenport contributed to this report.

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