Join Us In Going to the Moon … and Beyond

Humans are preparing to leave Earth’s orbit for the first time since 1972 — to the moon and eventually to Mars and beyond. That’s the mandate we’ve been given by President Donald Trump and a supportive bipartisan Congress. This is an exciting time to be leading America’s space program.

Today I’m proud to share a bold response to President Trump’s December 2017 call to action, one that will usher in the next chapter of human exploration. We are calling on American companies to help design and develop human lunar landers, reusable systems for astronauts to land on the moon.

As a lifelong NASA supporter, I am thrilled to be talking once again about landing humans on the moon. But to some, saying we’re returning to the moon implies we’ll be doing the same as we did 50 years ago. I want to be clear — that is not our vision. We are going to the moon with innovative new technologies and systems to explore more locations across the surface than we ever thought possible. This time, when we go to the moon, we will stay.

In the half-century since we last set foot on the lunar surface, our country, our agency — including its budget and workforce — and the technology and industrial landscape have all experienced tremendous change.

Indeed, more than two-thirds of Americans today were not even alive to witness the six successful Apollo moon landings, myself included. Extraordinary as they were, for many the lunar expeditions are facts from history books or stories told by older relatives. But unlike Apollo, this time we’re going to the moon to stay, and from there we’ll take the next giant leap in deep space exploration.

In my youth, I aspired to emulate America’s best aviators, astronauts like Alan Sheppard, John Glenn and Neil Armstrong. My aspirations led me to become a pilot in the U.S. Navy. Now, as NASA’s administrator, I have the opportunity to support a new generation of America’s best pilots, operators and space explorers as we venture deeper into the universe than ever before. I am humbled to lead this journey. I’m excited about what it means for our future, and I believe it is essential to the security of our nation.

To do that we need a sustainable, human presence beyond Earth’s orbit. That starts with the Gateway — a lunar orbiting outpost designed to ensure the safe transit of astronauts to the lunar surface and back home again.

The Gateway will be the home base for the first reusable human lunar lander system. It’s a sustainable approach that creates more commercial opportunities, which is necessary for long-term human space exploration. Crews will use our powerful Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft to travel to the Gateway and return safely home.

We want to get started as quickly as possible, so we are inviting private industry and other potential partners to meet with us next week at NASA Headquarters to discuss human lunar landers.

We have already committed to working with nine American companies to send new science instruments and technology demonstrations to the surface on commercial cargo moon deliveries. Following these early Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) missions will be a larger, more reliable and reusable lander system built for astronauts. We plan to award our first CLPS delivery task order early this year and target the first commercial lunar surface landing by the end of 2020.

President Trump has charged us with a bolder exploration mission — not to leave footsteps and plant flags but to learn how to live away from Earth. We are responding to that call while also continuing to look for scientific discoveries in the solar system and developing SLS, Orion and the Gateway. Working with our commercial and international partners, we will establish a foundation for ongoing human exploration of our nearest celestial neighbor.

Following a buildup of capabilities, our goal is to land astronauts on the moon within the next decade. Billions of people around the world will watch history being made as astronauts explore more of the surface for longer periods of time than ever before, and help us prepare for missions to Mars and other destinations.

We’re actively seeking ideas from the best and brightest from American industry. I may have missed the first human landing on the moon, but I’m working to ensure that I see the next one, along with the rest of the world.

How Is a Rocket Different From a Train?

Like many Americans, I rode the subway to work this morning.  Some of my colleagues took a bus.  Whether subway or bus, our conveyance was provided by the government and it abounded with all manner of commercial advertising intended to target riders, drivers, walkers, and anyone else who happened to take a gander.  Who benefits from this activity?  Everyone.  The advertisers reach an audience they desire and public transportation can improve and expand services while reducing the price of a ticket.

Why does the NASA Administrator care?  We are going to the Moon and this time we will have international and commercial partners that do not follow the norms of Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, or Shuttle.

NASA administrator and two astronauts sit down for conversation
Speaking with astronauts Chris Ferguson and Sunita “Suni” Williams for an informal Q&A session. Both Ferguson and Williams were selected to fly on the Boeing CST-100 Starliner for the Commercial Crew Program.

Right now, the United States of America is on the precipice of launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil for the first time since the retirement of the Space Shuttles in 2011.  Unlike previous human launches, NASA will not own and operate the rockets.  Instead, NASA will be a customer of a robust, domestic, commercial industry currently providing access to low Earth orbit.

The industry itself is a NASA success story and an American victory.  Because of NASA’s investments in the American launch industry, space launch now represents a net export for our country.  In fact, from 2011-2017, the United States grew its market share of commercial launch from 0% to a 54% in the global economy.  In 2018, the United States could reach 65%.

NASA’s investments now enable it to be a customer of the very launch industry it helped create.  The intent is to be one customer of many customers in a flourishing launch industry with numerous providers all competing on cost and innovation.  Savings, innovation, and redundancy result.

With many diverse launch customers, costs are spread, scale is increased, and the result is lower prices and increased access to space for NASA and others.

When multiple commercial launch providers compete to earn business, they have a strong incentive to innovate on design, engineering, manufacturing, and operations to improve services and reduce costs.  We have seen this already with the advent of reusable rockets, improved engines, and so much more.

Unlike the early Space Shuttle era, if a failure occurs in the new paradigm, we will not lose access to space.  Instead, we have the redundancy of numerous, dissimilar rockets from various service providers.

Commercial satellite operators, other government agencies, international partners, and America’s trade balance all benefit from NASA’s commitment to commercialization.  Apart from launch, NASA is also committed to commercializing human activities in low Earth orbit and we are making great strides toward that end.

These commercial successes enable NASA to do more in low Earth orbit, while freeing NASA’s budget to take humans to the Moon with a sustainable architecture.

In the new environment where NASA is just one customer, the question becomes: who else is a customer on our missions?  The prospects could be astronomical.  Some patrons could be companies uninvolved in space activities, but desiring to brand their wares on a rocket flying to space.  It might not be bad to have another customer spreading costs and reducing the price to NASA.

It could even be possible for NASA to carry such a brand itself.  Maybe on the ISS?  So long as it doesn’t compete against a commercial provider.  This was the topic of a recent article by Christian Davenport of the Washington Post.  (Chris: I would prefer a frothy soda pop.)

If NASA were to carry the brand of another, the purpose would be singular:  to prove a branding market exists, not to compete against commercial providers.  Another revenue stream for commercial providers (launch or space stations) could reduce costs to NASA and loosen new capital markets for space companies.

NASA is currently partnering with industry to demonstrate many various markets including in-space manufacturing, pharmaceutical development, the 3-D printing of human organs, and so much more.  Is it possible for NASA to demonstrate a branding opportunity?

I don’t know, but I have asked the NASA Advisory Committee to investigate the realm of the possible.  If the answer is yes, I look forward to working with my former colleagues in the Congress to make it happen.

What I do know is that tomorrow, when I get on the subway, there will be lots of commercial companies trying to get my attention and I’m ok with it, because it offsets the cost of my ticket.