Published 12:01 am Friday, June 21, 2019

Let’s settle a debate. On May 13, President Trump said, “Under my administration, we are restoring NASA to greatness and we are going back to the Moon, then Mars.”

But on June 7, this goal was challenged by — well — President Trump, who countered, “NASA should not be talking about going to the Moon. We did that 50 years ago. They should be focused on the much bigger things we are doing, including Mars.” So, who is right, Trump or Trump? Should NASA aim for the Moon of Mars?

First, some background.

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The original Moon landings were great human achievements but extremely expensive, as are most things NASA does. The reusable space shuttle was supposed to bring down costs of access to orbit over expendable launch vehicles.

Costs went way up. The International Space Station (ISS) started as an $8 billion project in the 1980s; in the end it cost $100 billion, decades behind schedule. In 1989, on the 20th anniversary of the first Moon landing, President George H.W. Bush declared NASA should aim for Mars. NASA said it would cost $450 billion; Congress aimed for “No!”

By comparison, Mars Society founder Robert Zubrin, an actual scientist with economic savvy, calculated that an innovative mission design that bypassed NASA’s waste and bloat could get to the Red Planet for $20 billion to $30 billion.

NASA’s latest proposed boondoggle is a “Gateway” station in lunar orbit, supposedly to support future missions to the Moon and Mars. Buzz Aldrin, the lunar module pilot for that first historic landing 50 years ago, is “quite opposed to the Gateway,” adding that to use it “as a staging area for robotic or human missions to the lunar surface is absurd.”

It would be far less costly simply to send humans directly to the Moon. And on June 13, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said returning humans directly to the Moon in five years would only cost $20 billion to $30 billion. Wonder how much it would really cost.

NASA scientists and engineers are smart, dedicated people, but part of NASA’s problem is politics. It has space centers strategically placed around the country to maximize political support rather than science and exploration. Florida, Texas, California, and the other states hosting centers have 197 votes in Congress, enough at least to keep NASA comfortably funded.

But NASA is always subject to changes in programs and direction depending on the whims of Congress and presidents — witness the latest Trump vs. Trump debate!

Further, as a government bureaucracy, NASA simply can’t be efficient. Every decision must be vetted and procedures followed that have more to do with protecting butts than protecting safety and keeping costs reasonable.

But in recent years, NASA has contracted out to several private companies, notably Elon Musk’s SpaceX, for cargo transport to the International Space Station. Stories of how Musk makes decisions quickly concerning rocket design and construction that would take NASA costly months illustrate why the private sector is the promise of the future. For space activities to be economically viable, companies like SpaceX must bring launch costs down by several magnitudes.

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is planning rockets to carry humans into orbit and even back on the Moon. He wants to build a base at a lunar south pole crater that contains water that could support the base and could be a staging area for mining Helium-3 and other commercially valuable elements that are rare on Earth but more abundant on the Moon.

Robert Bigelow of Bigelow Aerospace has developed inflatable modules — one is already attached as a test to the ISS — that he wants to use for private, cost-effective orbiting hotels and honeymoon suites and for habitats on the Moon.

Musk famously said he’d like to die on Mars, but not by crash landing. He is building rockets in hopes of building colonies on the Red Planet. Unlike the Moon, Mars could be terraformed in coming centuries with a breathable atmosphere and made into a new habitat for humanity and a demonstration of the endless potential of the human spirit.

So should NASA aim for the Moon or Mars? With its record of fumbling, does it really matter? Better to expand its partnerships with private companies. Bezos’ Amazon delivers packages best here on Earth, so maybe his Blue Origin should deliver humans to the Moon. And we might have been on Mars decades ago if NASA had overcome its own bureaucratic inertia.

The administration and Congress should stop thinking of space as a government program and think of it as a frontier that will best be opened up by private companies and individuals. Then we can really become a spacefaring civilization.

Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute. He is editor of the book “Space: The Free-Market Frontier,” a space policy expert, and was a young intern at NASA during the Apollo 11 Moon landing. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.