On @ The 90: The Myopia Problem

NASA image of lunar base posted on AmericaSpace
Will the commercialization of space accomplish all that proponents say it will? Image Credit: NASA

It is the year 3013, one thousand years into the future. Looking up into the night sky, you see a crescent Moon that is crisscrossed by a sparkling web of city lights. Millions of people are routinely working, living, and playing on the Moon. Billions live on Mars.

Many would agree that such a bright, promising future is probable. Some would contend that it is inevitable. What cannot be argued is that it is impossible, for we have already slipped the surly bonds of Earth.

The question is “when,” rather than “if.”

We don’t need to wait a millennium in order to get started. Fundamental new breakthroughs in physics are not required. Just as the hang glider and sailplane could have been developed and refined hundreds or thousands of years ago, we already have the needed technology to begin pioneering exploration of the Moon and Mars.

Currently, the most significant barrier holding us back is the astronomical price of space exploration. If you think that the cost of living in Tokyo is insane, how would you feel if the living expenses for your family came to $3 billion per year? That is what NASA currently pays to keep a half-dozen people alive in low-Earth orbit. Amortize the $100 billion construction price tag for the International Space Station and the true cost of living comes to something like $8 billion per year.

Want to keep a team of explorers alive on the Moon? You can safely multiply those costs by a factor of 10 or more. Want them to explore Mars? How can NASA afford a manned mission to Mars if it cannot even afford a robotic sample return that would bring back less than a kilogram of sand and gravel? In the financial sense, at this time Mars is genuinely the Red Planet.

How can we pay for the high price of space exploration? Perhaps a century from now there might be a viable market for lunar helium-3. Perhaps in 50 years there might be a demand for water from near-Earth objects and the Moon in order to fuel an orbital debris cleanup program. But for the immediate future, the enormous cost of access to space precludes profitable commercial space enterprises beyond geostationary orbit.

The good news, however, is that space exploration does not need to be profitable. The most important spinoff of the space race has been NASA’s substantial budget, which has remained fairly stable since the end of the Apollo program and is likely to remain that way. NASA has about $17 billion to spend on space each year with not one risk-adverse, profit-limited stockholder to hold it back.

Although some would like to see NASA’s budget doubled, not everyone thinks that spending even more money on space is a great idea. At either end of the political spectrum there are politicians who would gladly score points by diverting NASA dollars into the hands of the under-affluent or by returning them to the pockets of taxpayers. And in the current fiscal climate, asking for a significant increase in NASA’s budget would be nothing less than political suicide.

However, total liquidation of NASA would not significantly reduce the federal deficit, so as long as NASA’s budget continues to fly below the radar at one-half of 1 percent of the federal budget, it should be safe. Instead of enlarging its target cross-section by requesting more funding, NASA should secure its position by offering to responsibly match any percentage across-the-board federal spending cuts. Even with 85 percent of its current budget there is a phenomenal amount of exploration that NASA could accomplish.

So, the simple reality is that NASA must live within its means. Given that constraint, then, what can NASA do to make “when” happen sooner rather than later?

NASA can employ the same ruthless engineering discipline that put Apollo astronauts on the Moon. When Grumman Corp. engineers grappled with performance requirements for the lunar module, they made the lunar landing possible by throwing overboard heavy seats and picture windows. Today, NASA needs to throw overboard empty gestures and political distractions. Instead, it needs to define realistic objectives for a century or more into the future and then focus exclusively on concrete steps that will move us forward toward those objectives.

For instance, one of NASA’s main objectives for a century from now could be the establishment of a self-sufficient research base on the Moon that would support a sustainable population of 1,000 scientists and engineers, providing electric power, air, water, food, and shelter almost entirely from lunar materials.

NASA could then define a sequence of milestones that would support this objective, such as:

  • Exploring the mineral resources of the Moon.
  • Generating electric power on the Moon.
  • Extracting oxygen and water from lunar materials.
  • Growing food on the Moon.
  • Testing the physiological effects of long-term human exposure to one-sixth Earth’s gravity.
  • Closing the life-support loop to reduce costs.
  • Manufacturing structural components for shelters and vehicles from lunar materials.
  • Lowering the cost per pound of deliveries to the lunar surface.

Some of the initial development and testing could be accomplished on the ground. We know enough about the lunar environment and regolith composition to be able to test power generation, thermal management, and oxygen generation concepts in the laboratory. Human life-support systems could also be extensively tested in the lab before deployment to space.

The first space milestone might not necessarily be returning Americans to the lunar surface. Instead, the first few objectives might be accomplished more expeditiously with a team of remote-controlled lunar rovers that could access almost the entire lunar surface. The best time for a human return to the lunar surface might be at a later stage, when lunar power, air, and water resources are already online. The initial team of astronauts could then construct and service lunar manufacturing and agricultural facilities while investigating the long-term effects of lunar gravity.

It is these very long-term objectives that must be the true justification for our space program. Without them, space exploration becomes nothing more than a myopic exercise in flags and footprints. All in all, NASA needs to be less about reaching destinations and more about what we want to accomplish after we arrive. Until we know, we shouldn’t go.


This article originally appeared on Space News and was written by Nelson Bridwell, a senior machine vision engineer working in manufacturing automation. 

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  1. I caught the article when it appeared on Space News, but it’s really great to see it here on AmericaSpace as well! A source of reason and logic in the wilderness!

    • I don’t want to hype things, but you’re really doing such a great service to the public for running this site! I wish you all the very best of success!

  2. Cobblers!

    A bulk transit system into space could drop costs a thousand-fold – and not only could but must be created by people already alive.

    Mankind can go out or down, there’s no third option.

    Noel Falconer

  3. Couldn’t the effort to explore, assay, sample-return, and re-direct an asteroid be accomplished more efficiently and less-expensively with robotic spacecraft (with such technology later being re-purposed for exploration of Phobos, Europa, Titan, etc.)? We could then focus our efforts on a long-term strategy for the Moon. I wholeheartedly agree with Leonidas, AmericaSpace is once again performing a great public service in hosting such discussions. (Cobblers? Aren’t those the skilled tradesmen who repair and make shoes by hand?)???

  4. The cost of launch is headed in a downward trajectory because of SpaceX…The cost of habitating in space for long periods is heading down because of Bigeloweareospace …. The cost of interplantary flight is headed down because of Ad Astra…. Then there are hundreds of other companies that will fill everything else… NASA is the R&D arm of the big defense contractors…That will be surpassed by the private sector…as it should be in a Market Driven Capitalistic society…

    • Actually? The cost to launch – has been going up &, to date, given that SpaceX has only been able to launch a single mission a year. It hasn’t impacted launch prices all that much, no one has ever even been inside a Bigelow habitat in space, no one has journeyed beyond Earth orbit since 1972. As to your comment about what the other companies “will” do. Do you mean like what Rotary Rocket, Kister Aerospace or Sea Launch will do? SpaceX has proven it’s launch services/spacecraft – but hasn’t translated its success into being able to launch frequently, BA has had some successes as well – but have yet to prove the viability of their designs by having an actual person inside one of their offerings in space. It’s a common theme stating things that have yet to happen – as if they already have. You might want to wait until the companies you highlight either achieved their primary objectives, or build a portfolio.

      • LMHO Jason, I love it when you’re pointing this out! Listening to all the propaganda, one might assume that we’ve already reached Saturn and that we’re routinely ice-skiing on Europa!

        Am I late in securing a ticket to that orbital Hilton hotel around Jupiter? I hope I get one before the summer ends 🙂

        • Hi Leo,
          Please counter propaganda with cold, hard facts. No need to poke fun at folks when they’re comments speak for themselves.
          Sincerely, Jason

          • You’re right Jason. And I really didn’t want to offend. This must be the first time in my comments here on AmericaSpace where I have displayed some cynicism. I am really a polite and easy-going person by nature, and I excpect the same thing back. And contrary to my comment, I really want for NewSpace to succeed.

            Yet, I really find it hard to support the movement many times, cause I have been more or less, in conversations on the internet insulted by the movement’s advocates attitude, that sees themselves as ‘know-it-all’, and everyone else who might have a different view are attacked and labeled as ‘idiots’ or whatever. And I’ve come to the point where I treat the movement’s arguments with a grain of salt.

            • I should also apologise to Tracy if I came off as impolite. Everyone has their own views and it’s not a mature and nice thing to poke fun at people for difference of opinion.

              Yet it would be good for people advocating NewSpace to ask themselves why others treat them some times less politely than they should.

              • Leo,
                AmericaSpace, is a troll-free zone. We’ve noted that we spend a lot of time debating with certain individuals. The conversations go nowhere, nothing happens but time is wasted. Tracy’s comments were removed for a reason. He hoisted up some book that he felt everyone should read & then insulted any who contradicted him. The point is, we want all comments here to show respect.
                Sincerely, Jason Rhian – Editor, AmericaSpace

    • Tracy – If the statement that “NASA is the R&D arm of the big defense contractors” is any indication of the mentality of the Newspace NASA-bashers, then it is quite obvious why they are so often viewed with scorn and derision by individuals who actually know something about the space program. That contemptible remark about NASA is a loathsome insult to the courageous heroes who risked their lives for all of us, you included. An individual of integrity, one worthy of the priceless gifts these epic heroes have bestowed upon us, would post a sincere apology to Elliott See, Charlie See, Gus Grissom, Edward White, Roger Chaffee, Francis Scobee, Michael Smith, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnick, Ronald McNair Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark, and Ilan Ramon.

      • Karol: just a small correction to your list of deceased astronauts: after Elliott See, it should read “Charlie Bassett.” Both were killed in a plane crash in St. Louis.

  5. Thanks for all the comments.

    Would love to see “commercial” space efforts results in a 10x reduction in the cost to LEO. So far, SpaceX is something like 2X, which has allowed them to steal away old space business from others.
    Give Musk a decade and he just might possibly get his full reusability working.

    But the roadblock to the commercial dream is the lack of a compelling, profitable product or service. Without that, all those hundreds of tiny space businesses will continue to have no profits, no income, no budgets, and no investors. Come up with one or two and you will change the future.

  6. NASA spends $3B per year on the ISS.
    I just ran some calculations as far as the prices that Bigelow announced for BA330 space and crew transport:

    $12.5M/month for 110 m3 space.
    $26.25M-36.75M transport cost per person for stays of up to 60 days.

    So for an ISS-equivalent volume + 6 crews, rotating every 60 days, you are talking about an annual cost of

    $12.5M x 8 modules x 12 months = $1.2B per year
    ($26.25M to $37.75M) x 6 rotations x 6 crew = $0.945B to $1.324B per year

    Which comes to somewhere between $2.145B and $2.523B per year. Not all that different from what NASA spends!

    Of course, if you can get by with 1/8th of the space and 1/3 of the crew, the annual cost would be between $0.3B and $0.37B, about 10% of what NASA spends.

    Show me the huge savings!


  7. It’s a racing certainty that we’re going to run out of something critical, plausibly we can replace/supplement/share out water OR land OR energy OR materials, but not them all, not every single one, as we must. Historically, when nations do that, they fight over, and thereby waste, what little is left. We have the knowhow, global coordination and resources to achieve bulk transit into space. Today. A generation hence, maybe after a major war . . . ?

    Okay, I’m a Cassandra. But am I wrong?

    The Space Elevator faces more difficulties than its cable but, the SE apart, major economies are possible. Better launch sites. Mount Kilimanjaro? Or atop an A380 bitsa? Either renders SSTO feasible. Hyper-expensively in terms of capital expenditure. At trivial unit cost when lifting thousands – millions? – of tons annually.

    Exotic means of transferring from LEO merit study. Nuclear would be enormously safer there – NERVA was concelled through public panic, not rationally. Orbit change durations matter little, allowing the employment of low thrust but high specfic impulse techniques.

    Mass production. Upwards of half a million warplanes were built in WW2, plus warships and tanks and much else, all before computers and while key workers were away fighting and the opponents were bombing and blockading each other.

    The obstacles to a bright future are not technical but political.

  8. I just think that no one is looking at the history of technology development in the correct perspective…110 years ago the wright brothers were preparing for the first airplane flight yet the the media reports were that mankind might fly like birds in a Million years….Within 70 years we went from the airplane to landing on the moon….Several engineers and scientists have published papers on understanding the concepts of faster than light travel….So I think that 100 years from now we will have achieved much more than 2000 scientists on the moon….

  9. Thanks for the comments!

    From where I stand, the primary obstacles to a bright future are
    (a) vision,
    (b) leadership,
    (c) budgets, and
    (d) technical.

    Given vision, leadership, and patience, we can make up for finite budgets, which will allow us to work out the technical challenges.

    Space is far more expensive and unforgiving than aviation. Compare the accomplishments of Goddard with the Wright Brothers. With a similar budget, over 15 years, Goddard was able to reach a maximum altitude of only 8,500 feet, even though he did solve many significant engineering problems.

    The advances that lead up to Apollo were fueled by a life-and-death competition between the USA and the USSR. Recall the words of JFK:
    Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

    • Nelson,
      On a global basis every 12 months our scientific knowledge doubles…This constant compounding of data will have dramatic results to our planet. Ray Kurzwiel who wrote “the singularity is near” described in detail the changes that he proposes will be coming to the world and how quickly it will happen…

      • Tracy:

        I also read Ray Kurzwiel’s book, which does not directly address space exploration at all.

        Where Kurzweil and space exploration do intersect is in his assertion that machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence within the next 50 years. If that is true, then it could shift our focus with regard to the search for life and earth-like planets, as well as the balance between manned and unmanned missions.

  10. Nasa’s shuttle cost over $1.6 billion per flight…
    The SpaceX Falcon Heavy costs 1/10 as much to put TWICE the NASA shuttle payload into orbit….
    We need private enterprise efficiency, innovation, spirit…. Get NASA out of the way

    • Your analogy is false & disingenuous. The difference between shuttle & FH, is FH hasn’t flown. So, how do you know it’ll be 9/10 less? Where is the evidence to back up this claim? Also, how do you know how much it’ll be able to carry? The evidence to support your claims doesn’t exit yet. One thing you conveniently don’t mention is, once a rocket leaves PowerPoint presentations & flies? Costs go up. One need only look at the Falcon 9 for proof of that. The fact that FH is an unmanned rocket & shuttle was manned – further erodes your comparison. Costs to launch a crewed, as opposed to an unmanned vehicle are dramatically different. In essence, you’re comparing apples to oranges.

      Also, your “Get NASA out of the way” comment – is NewSpace propaganda, one which bears no resemblance to NASA in its current state. Is Commercial Crew in private space’s way? How about Commercial Cargo? What about the $1.6 billion NASA paid SpaceX for the Commercial Resupply Services contract? Or maybe the $278 million to develop the Falcon 9? NASA has gone out of its way to help private space – yet NewSpace supporters just can’t stop themselves from NASA-bashing.

      NewSpacers do this all the time, they make definitive statements about things that have yet to take place as if they already have. They then use this “data” to attack NASA.

      Ameriman, it doesn’t take much to review the facts that show your comments are false & misleading. This suggests you’re being intentionally dishonest. I’d recommend you review the facts behind what you state – before posting again.

    • “Nasa’s shuttle cost over $1.6 billion per flight…”

      The shuttle cost per flight was not $1.6 billion. Not even close. If they wanted to fly an extra shuttle mission, all NASA had to pay for was one external tank and fuel. Easily less than $100M.

      “The SpaceX Falcon Heavy costs 1/10 as much to put TWICE the NASA shuttle payload into orbit…”

      Actually, the shuttle stack put the entire orbiter into LEO. The empty weight of the orbiter plus the max payload was 93 metric tons, almost 10 times the capacity of a Falcon 9.

      “We need private enterprise efficiency, innovation, spirit….
      Get NASA out of the way”

      “Spirit” is fine, as long as it does not get in the way of clear, level-headed analysis.

  11. Frankly, I think the key to getting humans in space is to get past market forces. All market forces have done is cause folks to focus on medium lift LVs–that is the path to stagnation.

    My goal is that different nations should be assigned to different tasks, instead of duplication of effort. We develop SLS, the Russians develop Sea Dragon, China and the UK to focus on Skylon and RLVs.

    Now all we have are EELV clones.

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