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Here are 10 alternative ideas for what NASA could do with its Moon budget


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Here are 10 alternative ideas for what NASA could do with its Moon budget

For this kind of money in space, there's a universe of things we might do instead.

Lake Bosumtwi, located in Ghana, is situated inside a meteorite impact crater. Perhaps we should protect ourselves? (Photo by USGS/ NASA Landsat/Orbital Horizon/Gallo Images/Getty Images)
Enlarge / Lake Bosumtwi, located in Ghana, is situated inside a meteorite impact crater. Perhaps we should protect ourselves? (Photo by USGS/ NASA Landsat/Orbital Horizon/Gallo Images/Getty Images)
USGS/ NASA Landsat/Orbital Horizon/Gallo Images/Getty Images

One year ago, NASA embarked upon a journey to send humans back to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo Program. At the direction of the White House, NASA seeks to land astronauts at the South Pole of the Moon by 2024. Only recently, in February, did the space agency put a price on this Artemis Moon plan—$35 billion over the next five years above its existing budget.


Since then, of course, the world has turned upside down. In the weeks after NASA released this cost estimate, the threat posed by COVID-19 has swamped space budget debates or policy concerns. Moreover, most of the space agency's major hardware development programs for the Moon landing are temporarily shuttered. And truth be told, no one knows what kind of economy or federal budget will emerge on the other side of this pandemic.


So during this pause in government spaceflight activity perhaps it is worth asking, is the Moon worth it? Certainly for much of the human spaceflight community, the Moon is the next logical step. It offers a nearby place to test our ability to fly humans beyond low-Earth orbit and the next frontier for human economic activity in space.


On the other hand, $35 billion over five years is a lot of money. Instead of accelerating a human landing on the Moon by a few years—and there is no guarantee that Artemis will succeed—NASA could accomplish other interesting and useful things.


To help find out just what we might do in space instead, I reached out to followers on Twitter and received hundreds of suggestions. From this, I broke these myriad proposals into 10 different "big ideas" that represent alternative approaches to exploration from NASA's mostly traditional Artemis Program. Under each category, for additional context, I've included links to individual suggestions that fall broadly into that area for additional context.

Find asteroids, then deflect or mine them

In survey after survey, protecting planet Earth from killer asteroids consistently ranks highest among public priorities for NASA. However, in recent years NASA has spent less than 1 percent of its budget tracking and characterizing hazardous objects in space, or about $150 million a year.


Recently, the space agency proposed building a $600 million space-based NEO-Surveillance Mission to detect 65 percent of the undiscovered asteroids 140 meters or larger near Earth within five years, and 90 percent of them within 10 years. With more funding, NASA could build a second space-based telescope and supplement it with ground-based observatories.


At the same time, the space agency could also do more missions like its Double Asteroid Redirection Test to study the deflection of potentially threatening asteroids.


Finding and deflecting hazardous asteroids for the next century would cost substantially less than $35 billion. With the extra money, NASA could fund more missions to see about extracting rare metals and other precious commodities from them, which it is already doing in a limited fashion with the OSIRIS-REx, Psyche, and Lucy planetary science missions. The rare metals on asteroids are valued in the trillions of dollars.


By better characterizing asteroids and conducting missions to test working on them, NASA could lay the groundwork for commercial development of asteroids and for building off-world mining industries. In doing so, the space agency could save Earth from strip mining and other activities harmful to the environment—in addition to averting a globally catastrophic impact.


(suggested by Gabriel Arisi, Bryan Veersteg, What About It?!, Kurt, Kevin DuPriest, Maurice Brown, jules)

Explore the Solar System

In recent decades, NASA has arguably gotten the biggest bang for its buck from a succession of planetary missions that have explored all of the planets in the Solar System and many of their Moons. Thanks to the Voyagers, Galileo, Cassini, New Horizons, half a dozen landers on Mars, and a fleet of other spacecraft, we have learned so much about the worlds around us.


Perhaps, then, NASA should double-down on these efforts to answer fundamental questions, such as whether life exists elsewhere in our Solar System today or whether it ever did in the past. With $35 billion, NASA could launch flagship missions to the planets Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, and Venus, as well as intriguing moons in the outer Solar System, such as Triton, Titan, Enceladus, Europa, and more.

Alternatively, planetary scientist Doug Ellison suggested NASA could fund the dozens of Discovery- and New Frontiers-class missions that made it past the first round of competition but were ultimately not funded for flight due to limited resources. Even doing this, NASA would still have about $20 billion left over.


The bottom line is that instead of sending a few humans to the surface of the Moon, NASA could provide a comprehensive picture of our Solar System through the use of robotic explorers over the next two decades.


(submitted by Amanda TessDoug Ellison, Mario Billiani, Matthieu Prigent, Tiktaalik, Enrique, David Koelle, Mapperwocky, Alex Pertuz, John Christoph, Samuel Benjamin)

Artist's impression depicting a wide variety of existing and future satellites for communication, surveying Earth resources, and mapping them, circa 1978.
Enlarge / Artist's impression depicting a wide variety of existing and future satellites for communication, surveying Earth resources, and mapping them, circa 1978.
Space Frontiers/Getty Images

Clean up our big mess

Given the thousands of satellites already in low-Earth and geostationary orbits, plus tens of thousands more coming from satellite Internet mega-constellations, perhaps NASA should focus on keeping the near-Earth environment safe for all. A near miss of two satellites above Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, at the end of January—approaching one another with a relative velocity of 15km/s—reinforced the importance of this task.


According to Charity Weeden, vice president at a company called Astroscale that is working to remove orbital debris, about 26,000 pieces of trackable debris orbit the planet. Unfortunately, most of this debris is concentrated in orbits used today. There are many more pieces of smaller debris that cannot be tracked. Even something as small as a few millimeters could nick a satellite's fuel tank and lead to a major catastrophe, she said.


Weeden and other orbital debris experts think there are about 500,000 blueberry-sized pieces of debris in orbit around Earth and more than 100 million pieces on the order of a few millimeters. "Here we are in 2020 and we’re going to double the active satellite population this year," she said. "It’s kind of exciting. But we're still using the same rules and we’re not really ready for that reality."


No US agency has taken responsibility for clearing space debris, but it's something that will become increasingly important with more and more satellites on the way. NASA could take this on as one of its primary jobs, both through support of global commercial infrastructure to track satellites and debris, as well as supporting contracts to develop removal technologies and actually funding those missions. Investing $35 billion now would ensure a prosperous future in space.


(suggested by Chris Taylor, Stephen Bates, Alistair Funge, Starfest 2020, Gabriel Ciociola, defecon 3, Shelby Steiner)

Prizes for affordable exploration

One way to nudge industry toward a preferred outcome is by offering prizes—for example, the privately offered Ansari XPrize helped to launch the new space industry. Prizes can cost considerably less while still encouraging new ideas from new contractors.The downside, as recently seen in the DARPA Launch Challenge, is that there is no guarantee of success. For the money offered, no companies may succeed, or even try.


A series of prizes might be useful in stimulating the development of truly sustainable spaceflight. Readers had various suggestions about how to encourage industry to develop technologies such as in-space refueling, reusable landers, on-orbit construction, and more. All of these tools could underlie a future of more affordable spaceflight.


Rocket scientist Jeff Greason offered a specific series of prizes for a sustainability starter kit:

  • $1 billion award fee for co-orbiting private space station near the International Space Station
  • $1 billion a year to fly people and cargo to it
  • $1 billion to add a third commercial crew provider (in addition to SpaceX and Boeing)
  • $8 billion ($6 billion first prize, $2 billion second prize) for US boots on the Moon for 28 days or longer
  • $2 billion to demonstrate capability to push 50 tons from low-Earth orbit using existing boosters
  • $2 billion to demonstrate assembly of space object with three times the diameter of a rocket payload fairing
  • $2 billion for development of a cislunar propellant depot, and then $2 billion a year to purchase propellant in cislunar space from lowest-cost provider

All of these capabilities are within the reach of US aerospace companies. And prizes might be the incentive they need to bring them to fruition.


(suggested by Jeff Greason, Ben Pearson, EldenC, Andrew Cantino, anonyx, Michael Mealling, Dream Chaser, Andre Infante, Joel Martin)

In-space nuclear propulsion

Instead of focusing on launch technology with the expensive Space Launch System, which private sector companies such as SpaceX and United Launch Alliance appear capable of, a number of readers suggested the space agency focus on really hard, novel tasks such as in-space nuclear propulsion.


NASA maintained a nuclear thermal propulsion program into the 1970s, when it was shut down to help pay for the space shuttle program. In recent years, Congress provided some limited funding to develop a nuclear rocket ($125 million in 2019), but developing and deploying this technology will require billions, not millions of dollars.


The basic concept is fairly simple: a fission reactor heats up propellants such as hydrogen to accelerate them through a nozzle. Nuclear thermal propulsion would require substantially less fuel than chemical rockets, and therefore it could theoretically cut down the travel time from Earth to Mars from six months to less than three.


Beyond the technical challenge of developing and testing nuclear engines in space, there are a host of regulatory and intergovernmental issues to be worked out as well. For this reason, only a large government agency like NASA could really make a technology like this work. But if the agency is serious about sending humans to Mars and elsewhere in the Solar System, it would seem that faster in-space propulsion would be a good place to start.


(suggested by John M. Aldrich, Spiritual Advisor, Andrei K, Axe, WWBYD)

Aerodynamic strakes are shown wiggling.
Enlarge / Aerodynamic strakes are shown wiggling.
Blue Origin

Support commercial space

NASA has spent the lion's share of its exploration funds over the last decade on cost-plus contracts awarded to traditional aerospace contractors. They have been used to (slowly) build the Orion spacecraft, Space Launch System rocket, and seemingly unending ground support projects at Kennedy Space Center.


Given that NASA will continue to support these projects with billions of dollars a year regardless of Artemis, one option might be to invest $35 billion in commercial space companies with purely fixed price contracts that tend to move faster. For example, NASA might pre-buy a series of five or more launches on Blue Origin's New Glenn and SpaceX's Starship rockets. (The space agency already did this on a very small scale with the Venture Class Launch Service program for small satellite launch rockets.)


NASA could also work with industry in a purely commercial way by providing fixed-price contracts for services, such as United Launch Alliance and its ACES upper stage to demonstrate on-orbit refueling, a cornerstone technology to making spaceflight affordable.


There are many ways NASA could go about this, but the basic goal remains the same: invest in cost-effective technologies that drive down the price of reaching space and moving to destinations. This would require a big step away from the Apollo model of exploration NASA has followed for the better part of half a century. But if we are to transition away from a few highly trained astronauts working in space to making it a place for widespread human activity, then change is required. And clearly a lot of space fans are frustrated with the status quo of slow, cost-plus contracts.


(suggested by To The Stars, TruckTesla, KenKirtland, AlexandreNajjar, PH, Rick Strickland, Luis, Mack Crawford, Adam Hugo, Fred Kleindenst, Cory de Luna, David Holtkamp, Dale Arney, Paul)


Understand Earth, address climate change

NASA maintains several satellites in orbit to study the Earth's climate system, but some of this infrastructure is aging or fails to take advantage of new technologies. Yet the public consistently rates monitoring Earth's climate system among NASA's highest priorities.


Several readers advocated building a more robust climate monitoring system to better inform the public about how the world is changing and to better inform policymakers about how to address climate change.


This would be substantial money, as $35 billion is 10 times the NASA 2020-2027 budget for future Earth science missions. We could answer really important questions about aerosols, clouds, and precipitation faster and with smaller error bars. Only a fraction of those missions would be related to climate change, as there are enormous co-benefits for water planners, disaster monitors, insurers, traders, storm preparers, weather forecasters, and more. Leaning into these questions with $35 billion would be quite literally Earth-changing.


(suggested by Andrew Dessler, A Siegel, Mark Thornton)

Fund big astronomy

In the 1990s and 2000s, NASA led development of four "great observatories" that have changed our understanding of the universe—the Hubble Space Telescope, Spitzer Space Telescope, Chandra X-Ray Observatory, and the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory. 

The new great observatories.
Enlarge / The new great observatories.

At present, NASA is considering different proposals for four different in-space observatories that would take the next step, be it in definitively funding habitable exoplanets or ultra-powerful X-ray observatories. The present goal is to launch a single one of these multibillion dollar, highly ambitious projects by the mid-2030s.


With $35 billion, NASA could simply move forward with all of them at once. Instead of going back to the Moon, NASA could quite literally explore the entirety of the universe.


(suggested by Grant Tremblay, Dr Heidi B. Hammel, Chris Marshall, Michael Mealling, Donald Spines)

Starship to Mars

A lot of respondents thought NASA should bet on SpaceX as a back-up to the agency's current exploration efforts.


In a recent conversation with Ars, SpaceX founder Elon Musk outlined his plan for building a fleet of reusable Starships to settle Mars with humans. This offers a radically different vision from the exploration plans NASA has contemplated. After returning to the Moon, in the 2030s, NASA envisions sending a crew of four to six astronauts to the surface of Mars for a short stay before a return to Earth. By contrast, SpaceX quite literally wants to send thousands of people to Mars to settle the Red Planet.


So instead of spending $35 billion to fund a traditional exploration effort to the Moon, which may fail, why not fund a non-traditional plan to send a multitude of humans to Mars, which also may fail?

SpaceX has a lot of expertise when it comes to building rockets, but if it is to realize Musk's dreams of Mars, the company will probably need a lot of help from engineers and NASA. And the space agency is well prepared to help. For decades, scientists, engineers, and mission planners at NASA have been studying and building technologies needed to keep humans alive for a long time in microgravity and on the Red Planet's surface.


Isn't it about time to test them out for real? A lot of readers think so.


(suggested by Dennis Nyrkov, Space Colonize, Rome Strach, Angella King, Daniel Camero, Brad Fox, Phil D, Stan, Jeanne Yzelle, Joachim Voldseth, Ian Anderson)

Space Elevator

Long a dream of engineers, a space elevator remains almost entirely a theoretical proposition. But given the steep cost of launching stuff into space—still nearly $20,000 per kilogram, although the price is dropping—the prospect of a space elevator lifting material to orbit for $100 per kilogram sounds mighty attractive.


The basic concept of a space elevator is seductively simple. A (very long) cable or tether would stretch from a base on the ground to a counterweight in geostationary orbit. Stops could be built along the way, such as low-Earth orbit, as a large car climbs up and down the cable. Finding the right material for the cable is among the many engineering challenges.


At present, entrepreneurs and other nations are at least investigating the feasibility of this. And a space elevator is on China's long-term roadmap for space exploration, beginning in 2045.


Costs are unknown but likely to fall in the range of tens of billions of dollars, at least. It would be an engineering challenge worthy of a space agency with the right stuff, to be sure.


(suggested by blinkenjim, Michael Mosser)

Alien contact, of a sort

Finally, we have author and writer Chris Jones to thank for one final suggestion: "Two aliens at the same time."



Source: Here are 10 alternative ideas for what NASA could do with its Moon budget (Ars Technica)  


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