June 11, 2013 -- A soon-to-be-released study on future activities in space suggests that private Moon bases could be a reality as early as 2020.
Recently, NASA accepted a proposal by Robert Bigelow, founder of Bigelow Aerospace, to report on private-company plans for the final frontier. NASA was interested in learning more about private capabilities and plans for a Moon base, launch services, and other hardware developments. Bigelow submitted the first part of his report last week, well ahead of schedule. And the second and final part will come out over the summer.
Since humans first ventured off the planet half a century ago there has been no shortage of enthusiasts promoting every imaginable enterprise in orbit or on other worlds. But government regulations made many private projects nearly impossible. Further, NASA built hardware and performed operations that might have been contracted out to private companies; by contrast, in the early years of aviation the Post Office, rather than building its own planes, simply paid private pilots and companies to carry air mail.
But a loosening of regulations and a new NASA policy of contracting out for services have changed the space sector landscape. Now many too-costly endeavors could soon be fiscally—as well as technologically—feasible.
Bigelow himself is one of a new breed of entrepreneurs revolutionizing space-based enterprise. He has committed half a billion dollars of his personal fortune to developing innovative inflatable habitat modules that he wants to put into orbit at costs well below the equivalent modules for the International Space Station. And he wants them to be the habitats for a future Moon base as well. Bigelow already has launched two one-third size prototypes into orbit. And NASA has contracted with him to have one of his modules tested at the ISS (in 2015).
Bigelow hopes to have his modules placed into orbit by SpaceX , the cutting-edge space company headed by PayPal co-creator Elon Musk. Musk’s company already has launched three spacecraft that have berthed with the ISS and returned safely to Earth. In the future his rockets and spacecraft could carry humans to ISS, Bigelow’s orbiting private station, and even to the Moon. For his part, Musk says the long-term goal is Mars.
Of course, when NASA contracts for services, the taxpayers still foot the bill, though they pay less than if NASA were performing these operations itself. Still, what Bigelow and other out-of-this-world entrepreneurs want is a private market in space in which they can make profits. As private providers bring down the cost of space activities, private operations should supersede those undertaken by NASA. The Bigelow report reinforces a paradigm shift: space is a place, not a government program. And it is a place like the American West, one where private individuals are the best pioneers.
Hudgins is director of advocacy and a senior scholar at The Atlas Society.
For further information:
*Aaron Day, “ Steve Davis, SpaceX, And The Power Of Human Achievement. ” May 16, 2013.
*Edward Hudgins, “ SpaceX’s Entrepreneurial Triumph !” May 25, 2012.
*Edward Hudgins, editor, Space: The Free-Market Frontier . Cato Institute, 2002.