NASA’s human spaceflight program has been in a state of uncertainty pretty much from the moment the Apollo 17 crew left the surface of the Moon 45 years ago this month. The Space Shuttle never became the hoped-for workhorse that would makes space access cheap and routine; the International Space Station never became a glorious gateway to deep-space exploration. Now NASA faces yet another U-turn as President Trump has directed the agency’s administrator to send astronauts back to the moon.
One problem: There is no NASA administrator (the Senate hasn’t voted on the nominee, Rep. Jim Bridenstine, so he’ll have to be renominated when congress reconvenes next month). Another problem: There is no budget to support another Apollo-style venture. So where do we go from here? I spoke with Charles Miller — a veteran of both NASA and commercial space ventures, and president of consulting company NexGen Space — to get an insider’s perspective.
Miller was part of the Trump transition team, advising the incoming administration on space policy, so he’s privy to some of the internal conversations. On the other hand, he’s not a current NASA employee or member of the new National Space Council, so he can speak candidly. That combination made for an interesting conversation — interesting enough that I’m going to run it in two parts. What follows is an edited version of part one of our exchange.
Why has it been so hard to establish a vision that would get astronauts back into deep space?
I’ve been in the industry nearly 30 years. I’ve watched multiple attempts at an American return to deep space collapse. There were three times where the old traditional way of doing this has been proposed, and every time it’s failed.
The first time was when the Vice President of the United States, Spiro Agnew, tried to set up a continuation of Apollo, and that collapsed. It had absolutely no support. Then Bush 41 and his Space Exploration Initiative was the second time it completely collapsed. Then the third time was with Bush 43 and the Constellation Program.
If you try something three times and it collapses each time—clearly you need to do something different.
What makes you confident that private companies can help save us from another failed plan for human space exploration?
I’ve actually done the analysis, so when other people are giving opinions I can show some research to back it up. Let me provide some context. I’m a serial space entrepreneur. I started a company called Constellation Services back in the late ’90s, focusing on satellite servicing. We pivoted to Space Station cargo delivery in the early 2000s after the satellite telecommunications collapse. [Miller also co-founded NanoRacks, which supports small-scale experiments on the ISS, and started ProSpace, a commercial-space lobbying organization.]
Then in 2009 I went to work for NASA for three years as senior advisor for commercial space, so I saw the other side of the firebreak. I got a team at six NASA centers to do an initial analysis that clearly showed returning to the Moon with commercial partnerships was much lower cost in near term, but it went nowhere. There was a lot of quiet support, but it was politically incorrect to push commercial partnerships inside NASA. When I got out, I put in a proposal with my consulting company, NexGen Space.
And that was the origin of your Evolvable Lunar Architecture concept?
Right. The Evolvable Lunar Architecture study was the type of study that a bunch of NASA people would like to do within the agency but were not allowed to do. We had four former NASA astronauts, a former head of human space flight, three deputy associate administrators for human space flight. We truly wanted to know what would it cost to use a commercial partnership approach to going back to the Moon.
The answer was, we could put first human steps back on the about five to seven years from the starting go. You’d want two different companies to do it so you have dissimilar redundancy, just like we have dissimilar redundancy for cargo to the Space Station. The total cost would be on the order of $10 billion plus or minus 30 percent.
That’s a shockingly low number compared to the usual estimates. $10 billion total to go back to the Moon?
Yes, for two completely different systems. You get two different solutions at about $10 billion total cost, about $5 billion for each one. Maybe they need a rendezvous and docking standard [so they can work together]. You can get humans back to the Moon before the end of what would be the second Trump Administration.
But we did this study before we had any idea who was going to win [the 2016 presidential election]. This team of very experienced former NASA executives and astronauts believes that we could have humans on the moon very affordably before 2024. Everything that’s gone on since then has only increased the confidence that we could do this.
Jeff Bezos would like to put a lander on the moon—this story came out in the Washington Post. So you could have a race between Musk and Bezos and other big companies. Clearly, Musk and Bezos have the funding to make it a true partnership [with NASA]. Bezos wants to radically lower the cost of putting people into space, as does Musk. It would be an amazing race of billionaires, and it would be a huge benefit for our national space agenda.
All the analysis that we’d done leading into the Evolvable Lunar Architecture—no one’s disputed it. We’ve published it and briefed it to NASA. They’re like, “Yeah, you could do this; it’s just whether the politics could accept it.”
You also estimate that a private partnership could put a permanent settlement on the Moon for about $40 billion. Where did that number come from?
We then did a step-by-step evolutionary path leading to a permanent settlement on the Moon. We gave a clear focus for the lunar base, which was to mine the resources of the lunar poles, to produce propellant [from water in the lunar soil]. You’d put that in a propellant depot in lunar orbit to allow humans to go anywhere in the solar system.
You get to a permanent lunar base at about $40 billion, and that’s having people there who are long term. The $40 billion is rolling up about $3 billion a year in costs over a long period, so it’s not a big cost per year. And you can industrialize the moon. You can open up the solar system. You can provide a very useful product on the moon to make it lower cost for humans to go to Mars, because the vast majority of the cost for going to Mars is the propellant.
What about the intermediate steps, like lunar robotic precursor missions to get us started?
We recommended that you want to do 10 of those. You might pick five craters or five different spots, put two in each of the craters for redundancy, and go prospect each of those areas. You want to figure out what the best place is before you commit, right? That’s an integral part of it.
When you start, you do a parallel development for human access and immediately do the lunar resource prospectors as well. You don’t know where the best place is going be until you dig in and see how much water you find. And you get some cool science along the way.
I know you don’t speak for the Trump Administration, but what’s your sense of where they want to take NASA? How does it fit in with the concepts you outlined?
I’m absolutely clear that the President and Vice President want to do something bold. The Vice President in particular is a space advocate. He asked to be on the Science Committee in his first year in Congress. He was a congressman from Indiana and he asked to go to shuttle launches. He showed up all by himself just to go down to the launch. And the right instincts are there to want to do something different.
Dissatisfaction with the status quo is always good in this case because the status quo has been failing us for the last 30 years. I grew up in America where Apollo was the way you did things, but trying to repeat the Apollo mindset and model has been a complete failure. It’s time to do something different, and I think there’s bipartisan agreement on this subject. This is a nonpartisan issue generally, that it’s time for America to try a new way in space.
But as you say, there are also a lot of institutional obstacles. Is radical change really possible?
My biggest worry is that we’ll make a fourth try to go back to the moon with a central program government mindset and it’ll all fail again. I am actually optimistic that when we stand this up again we’ll do it a better way. Scott Pace—the head of the National Space Council, someone who’ve I’ve known for about 30 years—has been advocating going back to the Moon for some time. He’s a smart guy who can see all the data about what didn’t work before. He can help herd cats to get us on the right path for doing it a different way.
I personally think that a return to the Moon it needs to be more than just exploration. It needs to be about job creation and industrialization and capturing the resources of the solar system to benefit people here on Earth. I also think part of this needs to be about creating ultra-low cost access to space. If we’re ever gonna bring the benefits of space back to Earth we have to make it a lot lower cost to get there. Bezos and Musk are already going after fully reusable launch vehicles; that would be a revolutionary breakthrough.
I led an Air Force study published recently that says it’s technically achievable in the next five years to partner with US firms and jump-start a virtuous cycle leading to a 10-times reduction in the cost of getting to space from Earth.
The human value of space is still a tough sell for the public. What is the practical benefit of a lunar outpost?
For [a Moon base] the biggest benefit on Earth is going to be inspiration to the next generation. If you had a permanent settlement on the Moon, it’s the ultimate city on the hill. Children all over the world will look up to the Moon and know there are humans living there, that’s the future of humanity, and they want to be part of that future. If they know it’s an international lunar village of free people, I think that sends a powerful message.
Every child growing up, in even poor villages or living in tyranny, will look up and know that free people are living on the Moon. I also think it sends a message around the world that you want to be aligned with partnering with the United States. It would be an international lunar base, but the United States would be leading it. This is a thought-power message that is bipartisan in nature.
What about the economic benefits of commercial space exploration?
I think ultra low-cost access combined with a revolution in small satellites has a huge number of benefits that are going to come into play in the near future. It enables these big satellite constellations that Boeing and OneWeb are talking about: ubiquitous global broadband communication. Much lower-cost broadband everywhere has potentially transformational benefits to economic growth around the world. Right now it doesn’t make economic sense to put 4,000 big satellites in space and provide global broadband. We need ultra low-cost access to space to make it economically achievable.
And rather than these exclusive government employees called “astronauts” going into space, you’ll see more and private citizens going to space. At first they’ll be the ultra-wealthy, then they’ll just be the wealthy, then they’ll just be the upper middle class. That’s how flight happened. More and more people will be going to space and seeing the Earth as this precious commodity that we need to treasure and protect. You’ll see we’re all in this together.
In the long, long term, once you start creating those virtuous cycles of tourism and the large numbers of satellite constellations, you’ll be getting costs way down low. I am very excited about the long-term prospects of space solar power. Every person on this planet deserves the same standard of living as we enjoy here in America. The only way everybody gets that same standard of living is directly tied to energy usage.
You really think space-based solar power is a viable long-term energy solution?
If all our energy has to be supplied here from Earth, it creates a big problem. Jeff Bezos has a brilliant way of talking about it. He says over the last several centuries the average global energy use has been growing at 3 percent a year pretty steadily. For the next several hundred years there’s no reason why it shouldn’t continue to grow at 3 percent a year compounded. Well, in 500 years if you continue this trend you could cover the entire planet with solar cells and it wouldn’t provide enough energy.
Bezos is making the point that you need to think outside of the Earth’s fragile ecosystem for our future energy sources. You clearly could build space solar power satellites which are clean and nonpolluting in the long term to supply a positive, hopeful future that where everybody gets to enjoy a high-quality standard of life.