A NASA-funded study believes the United States could return a human to the moon in about five-to-seven years for roughly $10 billion using two independent and competing commercial service providers in a government-industry arrangement.

The study, led by NexGen Space LLC President and former NASA senior advisor for commercial space Charles Miller and co-principal investigator, Alan Wilhite of Wilhite Consulting, Inc., finds that returning a human to the moon could potentially be achieved within NASA’s existing deep space human spaceflight budget. NASA could leverage recent program innovations like the public-private Commercial Orbital Transportation Systems (COTS) model to get back to the moon at a dramatically-reduced rate.

Artist's illustration of a potential base on the moon. Photo: NexGen Space LLC.
Artist’s illustration of a potential base on the moon. Photo: NexGen Space LLC.

Miller said on Monday that the American people are the targets for the study. Miller said when the idea of returning humans to the moon is brought up periodically, the “automatic reaction” is that it would cost around $500 billion.

“We want to kill the idea that it has to cost hundreds of billions of dollars to go back to the moon,” Miller said during a press briefing at the National Press Club in Washington hosted by the National Space Society and the Space Frontier Foundation. “We think we have definitively answered if you use a different method–public-private partnerships leveraging America free enterprise–you can do it at a radically lower cost.”

The study finds numerous national security and economic growth benefits from an “evolvable lunar architecture” (ELA) that leverages commercial capabilities and services. In particular, higher launch rates of Defense Department launch vehicles and use of on-orbit propellant transfer will significantly lower the cost of DoD launch services. The study says low-cost and reliable access to space is critical to U.S. national security.

A lunar architecture, the study says, could also close the business case for a commercial reusable launch vehicle that could substantially eliminate U.S. vulnerability to “Pearl Harbor-style” attacks in space and make reusable launch vehicles deterrents to war. Since commercial reusable launch vehicles could provide a surge capability to rapidly replenish our space assets, just the existence of reusable launch vehicles will reduce the incentive to attack U.S. assets in space. This means the U.S. is less likely to need to use them in a war.

An evolvable lunar architecture, the study said, may also spur advances in robotics and telepresence that may have important military aspects. Other technological advances that could evolve include environmental systems, chemical and processing engineering advances from resource harvesting, additive manufacturing and environmental monitoring.

One risk to the plan is that humans aren’t exactly sure how much water is on the moon or how deep it is. This is important, the study said, because the amount of water available on the moon would enable further prospecting and establishment of a permanent lunar base, which could promote economic development at a small, marginal cost and provide a stop for humans on the way to Mars.

Miller said while humans know water exists on the moon, we don’t know how plentiful it is nor how deep it is. Calling this a key issue, Miller recommended NASA should send a resource prospector to the moon to evaluate. He said it would take roughly three-to-four years to determine how much water is on the moon.