COMMENTARY | It is a commentary on how adrift NASA space policy is when one considers that four years after President Obama made his “we choose not to return to the moon” speech that the space agency may be pivoting back to the moon.
Paul Spudis, a planetary geologist and return to the moon advocate, has read the tea leaves and has seen the first, tentative steps toward a pivot back to the moon. Elon Musk, the space entrepreneur and political ally of Barack Obama, has recently conceded that expeditions to the moon would be useful. NASA is partnering with private companies, under the CATALYST program, to build commercial lunar landers.
Furthermore no one has heard much of anything about the president’s bright vision of visiting an asteroid in months. Even NASA seems to have come to the conclusion on how boring that idea is.
To be sure, not everyone is thrilled. Hank Campbell, writing in Science 2.0., conceded that returning to the moon might be useful (sort of), so long as NASA is kept out of it.
“Why do companies need NASA for that? If you read the document, NASA is basically offering civil servants, but the last thing a nimble company making a bold space endeavor wants is government unions. And why would companies want to do technology demonstrations or look for water on the Moon? Then the government specifies that despite there being no commercial viability they know of, companies must provide a ‘Commercialization Strategy: Describe the long-term plan for operating a sustained and profitable commercial enterprise after completion of capability development’. NASA is going to try and pick winners and losers for commercialization of the moon?”
Campbell has a kernel of a point. But commercial companies are not going back to the moon alone, except perhaps for a few landers under the Google Lunar X Prize. They’re going to need NASA’s resources and experience to help them do it. Conversely, NASA’s going to need the commercial sector to help it refocus its space exploration efforts. Private companies do provide a certain nimble flexibility. Besides, a private/public return to the moon takes away the odor of trying to redo Apollo. Indeed someone should write a book about that.