A year ago, NASA embarked on a journey to send humans back to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo program. Under the leadership of the White House, NASA seeks to land astronauts at the South Pole of the Moon by 2024. It was only recently, in February, that the space agency put a price on this plan Artemis Moon – $ 35 billion over the next five years above. its current budget.
Since then, of course, the world has changed. In the weeks following the publication of this cost estimate by NASA, the threat posed by COVID-19 overwhelmed debates on the space budget or political concerns. In addition, most of the space agency’s major material development programs for the Moon landing are temporarily closed. And frankly, no one knows what kind of economy or federal budget will emerge from the other side of this pandemic.
So during this break from government space flight activity, it may be worth it is the moon worth it? Certainly for much of the human space flight community, the Moon is the next logical step. It provides a place nearby to test our ability to fly humans beyond low Earth orbit and the next frontier for human economic activity in space.
On the other hand, $ 35 billion over five years is a lot of money. Instead of speeding up a human landing on the Moon by a few years – and there is no guarantee that Artemis will succeed – NASA could do other interesting and useful things.
To help find out what we could do in space instead, I contacted Twitter followers and received hundreds of suggestions. From that, I divided these countless proposals into 10 different “big ideas” that represent alternative approaches to exploring NASA’s most traditional Artemis program. Under each category, for additional context, I have included links to individual suggestions that fall largely within that area for additional context.
Find asteroids, then hijack or exploit them
Protecting planet Earth from killer asteroids, investigation after investigation, continues to be a top public priority for NASA. However, in recent years, NASA has spent less than 1% of its budget to track and characterize dangerous objects in space, about $ 150 million a year.
Recently, the space agency proposed to build a $ 600 million space surveillance mission to detect 65% of undiscovered asteroids 140 meters or closer to Earth in five years and 90% of them in 10 years. . With more funding, NASA could build a second space telescope and supplement it with terrestrial observatories.
At the same time, the space agency could also perform more missions like its double asteroid redirect test to study the deviation of potentially threatening asteroids.
Finding and deviating dangerous asteroids for the next century would cost significantly less than $ 35 billion. With the extra money, NASA could fund more missions to extract rare metals and other precious products, which it already does on a limited basis with the planetary science missions OSIRIS-REx, Psyche and Lucy. The rare metals of asteroids are valued at thousands of billions of dollars.
By better characterizing asteroids and conducting missions to test their work, NASA could lay the foundation for the commercial development of asteroids and the construction of mining industries outside the world. In doing so, the space agency could save the Earth from surface mining and other environmentally harmful activities – in addition to avoiding a catastrophic impact on a global scale.
Explore the solar system
In recent decades, NASA has arguably achieved the best value for money from a series of planetary missions that have explored all of the planets in the solar system and many of their moons. Thanks to Voyagers, Galileo, Cassini, New Horizons, half a dozen landers on Mars and a fleet of other spacecraft, we have learned so much about the worlds around us.
So NASA may have to work harder to answer basic questions, like whether life exists elsewhere in our solar system today or has never existed in the past. With $ 35 billion, NASA could launch flagship missions to the planets Uranus, Neptune, Pluto and Venus, as well as intriguing moons in the outer solar system, such as Triton, Titan, Enceladus, Europa, etc.
Alternatively, planetary scientist Doug Ellison suggested that NASA could fund the dozens of Discovery and New Frontiers class missions that passed the first round of competition, but were ultimately not funded for the flight due to limited resources. Even doing this, NASA would still have around $ 20 billion.
The bottom line is that instead of sending a few humans to the surface of the Moon, NASA could provide a complete picture of our solar system through the use of robotic explorers over the next two decades.