Bridenstine: NASA Lunar Plan Focused on Sustainable, Commercial Architecture

Orion near the moon (Credit: NASA)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA plans to send astronauts back to the surface of the moon within a decade using a sustainable architecture that stresses reusable vehicles and open systems, Administrator Jim Bridenstine said last week.

“So how do we go sustainably?” Bridenstine said during a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC). “We start by taking advantage of capabilities in this country that didn’t exist even five or 10 years ago. We have commercial companies that can do things that weren’t possible even a few years ago….

“The idea that we have reusable rockets. Imagine if you flew across the united States, that you flew here to [NASA] Ames in a 737, and when the mission was over you threw the airplane away. How many of you would have flown here? It wouldn’t have happened,” he added.

The space agency chief made little mention during his address at the NASA Ames Research Center of two of the main components of the space agency’s exploration plan: the Orion crew capsule and the Space Launch System that will send it to the moon. Neither one is reusable.

Jim Bridenstine (Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Bridenstine instead focused on the planned Lunar Gateway, a space station in a halo orbit around the moon with its own propulsion system. The gateway will be served by reusable lunar tugs and landers.

“With that solar electric propulsion, it can also go to the L1 point and the L2 point, and give us more access to more parts of the moon than ever before,” Bridenstine said.

“We want to be able to do more than we’ve ever done before,” he added. “So what we’re going to do is build this critical infrastructure on and around the moon.”

The Lunar Gateway will use open standards that will allow commercial and international partners to build vehicles and systems compatible with it.

“And there’s another piece here that’s unique, it’s never been done before, it’s never been our policy as a country before, but the policy is this: we’re going to utilize the resources of the moon,” Bridenstine said.

There are hundreds of billions of tons of water ice on the moon that can be used for life support systems and rocket fuel, he added. There also could be trillions of dollars worth of platinum group metals deposited by asteroid impacts.

The ultimate goal of the lunar program is to test out technologies and retire risk so NASA can send astronauts to Mars, Bridenstine said.

The NASA administrator also discussed the Trump Administration’s Space Policy Directive 2, which assigns the Department of Commerce responsibility for regulating commercial activities in space such as lunar and asteroid mining. Regulations that facilitate such activities will be crucial to American leadership in space, he said.

“Friends, we have to make this a reality, because otherwise, these capabilities will go abroad….How do we get those commercial partners to be commercial partners, if instead they’re taking their money overseas? We want our commercial partners to stay here, we want to grow more commercial partners,” Bridenstine added.