Last month, on the 45th anniversary of Apollo 17’s landing on the moon, President Trump signed Space Policy Directive 1. “It marks a first step in returning American astronauts to the moon for the first time since 1972, for long-term exploration and use,” Trump said during a brief ceremony at the White House. Standing behind the president as he signed the directive was the Commercial Spaceflight Federation‘s president, Eric Stallmer, who represents members like Moon Express, Blue Origin, and SpaceX, groups who have a lot invested in the future of space travel, to the moon and beyond.
How exactly we’ll get back there remains fuzzy. While NASA’s plans envision a return to the moon by 2023, the agency currently lacks specific funding or even designs for a vehicle to actually land people on the surface. The yet-to-be-launched rocket that could take crews there is expected to cost about $1 billion per launch. Meanwhile, the aerospace industry sees a faster and cheaper path to the moon, with some imagining a lunar outpost as soon as the middle of the 2020s.
Not surprisingly, the industry argues that the country’s future in space depends on stronger partnerships between NASA and the private sector. That’s also one finding of a NASA-commissioned study, quietly posted to the agency’s website last month, which found that its current plans for future crewed lunar missions aren’t affordable and likely won’t produce long-term economic benefits, per The Wall Street Journal. Instead, the report—co-authored by an industry consultant and fledgling space entrepreneur—says NASA could save money by adopting business practices championed by private space companies, and advocates that the agency mine asteroids for fuel, in what would be the most extensive public-private cooperation in the history of space exploration.
We recently caught up with Stallmer to talk about how industry fits into the Trump administration’s space visions, what that industry needs to get to the moon and beyond, and what we’ll do once we get there.
Fast Company: Are you excited to have a return to the moon as a sort of national mission?
Eric Stallmer: I am! We just have to make sure that the path forward is the most efficient, cost effective, and practical way to do it. If you’re just looking to do another big government program and, you know, cut all the funding for everything else, I don’t think that’s the right approach. But if they truly want to engage the commercial marketplace and the innovation you have in the commercial marketplace, I think that would be the right step forward.
Do you feel like this should be a commercial endeavor or a publicly funded NASA one?
It should be a public-private partnership, maybe with NASA taking the lead and setting milestones, much like what we see with commercial crew program where NASA says, we need a ride to the International Space Station or we need to return our American astronauts into space on American vehicles. They tell Boeing and SpaceX, these are our requirements, this is what we need and this is how much we are paying, and they had to work within those parameters of being a kind of fixed price contract. It could leverage what the commercial community is doing.
In the next couple of years we are going to see a whole onset of new commercial launch vehicles. Existing technology is out there and it just needs minor modifications to complete this mission. I would think it would be a no-brainer to leverage that existing technology, as opposed to building a whole new bureaucracy, a new program of record just to fulfill some contractor’s bottom line.
Are you at all concerned that commercial flights are going to make it too easy for the government to not fund NASA properly?
No, I don’t see that right away, because NASA still has a major mission in the fields of exploration and science and research. And NASA does a great job, they really do, they have some of the best and the brightest in the government workforce and in the industry. Now, if we have commercial spacecraft taking off and doing, you know going back and forth to the space station and going back and forth to Mars, and we don’t need to spend that money, well, then that’s a good problem to have. That means we’ve really accomplished what we set out as a nation to do and to be truly a space-loving nation. But in the meantime I think NASA’s budget is safe and will be growing.
There has been some criticism about going back to the moon, since we already did it in the 1960s. What do you think?
Yes, okay we did [already go to the moon] but that’s like saying I’ve been to California because I had a layover in San Francisco. No pun intended but I don’t think we really even scratched the surface of what we can do on the moon. We went to the moon with this technology and this great national initiative and we only did it six times for a total combination of 200 hours or something like that, I feel cheated. Why didn’t we stay? Why didn’t we do more? And it has taken us 50 years to realize that we should have done more. If we can get back there I think it would be fantastic. Also, there is a business plan, there is money that can be made, I believe, on the moon.
How would you go about making money on the moon?
I don’t think people really know all the opportunities and possibilities that are there and won’t until we really get on there and start trying and testing different things. We have companies like Astrobotics, Moon Express, and iSpace, companies that have raised between the three of them I think almost $300 million dollars for their project to go to the moon. People see that there is a business plan there and whether it comes with the research or setting up an outpost like on the lunar surface, I think that we can learn much more this second go-round.
Since there are a limited number of military contracts and government operations right now, how are commercial space ventures planning on being profitable?
You are right. What are people’s business plans? What’s the business model that’s going to work? Who is going to pay for this? I think an organization like The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space [which manages the laboratory in the U.S. side of the International Space Station] should be founded to determine what kind of research you can do, whether it is advancement in pharmaceuticals or fiber optic cables. Made in Space are going to start manufacturing fiber optic lines on the ISS and that is significant, because this is the first time we are actually manufacturing a product in space. When we start building things in space, it’s a stepping-stone to creating a society, I think.
And the moon is about 13% of what we talk about. I am not this crazy moon person but that’s the mission, and that’s the goal of the administration and we are here to help Americans and scientists and the international community.
Do you have a sense of how many commercial launches have taken off in 2017?
I think SpaceX’s flight [on December 22nd would] be the 18th launch by SpaceX alone. ULA [United Launch Alliance] has had a few commercial launches and 7 or 8 launches for government customers, maybe more. I think in 2018 there will be a tremendous uptake in commercial launches, in the high 30s or maybe even 40 commercial launches.
What kind of cargo are these shuttles taking?
It’s a variety. I think SpaceX is doing a cargo resupply to the ISS, ferrying supplies, and experiments and food and water and all that back and forth to the astronauts in the space station. I think they did four or five in 2017. Those are really the key types of payloads, but the new trend is now secondary payloads where a company basically says, “hey you got a large room in your trunk, would you mind if we put a couple of our small satellites on there?” That’s a growing segment of the marketplace.
What should we expect in terms of crewed commercial space launches? I know SpaceX is planning on a few in 2017…
Boeing is too. They both want to contract to bring astronauts to space stations, so the return of human space flight will happen in the latter part of 2018, that’s what we’re projecting for those two companies. But then you also have companies like Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, kind of a smaller segment, that will be bringing passengers up into sub-orbital space and experience weightlessness. And that will be coming on line this year as well.
A lot of people in the commercial world have set their sights on Mars as the destination, when do you think a trip to Mars will be possible?
It’s hard to say, I would say from an optimistic perspective maybe we would be ready in 10 years, a pessimistic maybe 20. But I don’t think it’s out of the question in 10 years to be ready for a mission. I love Mars and I would love to see us go to Mars but it don’t think we are there yet and I think the moon is a logical stepping-stone.