July 17, 2009 -- Forty years ago this week, on July 16, 1969, at 9:32 a.m. EDT, Apollo 11 blasted off from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. Four and a half days later, on July 20, at 10:56 p.m. EDT, a man stepped onto the surface of the moon for the first time. What had once seemed impossible had been proven to be merely incredibly difficult, as human ingenuity and courage leapt over yet another historic hurdle.
A Question of Cost
The main reason we haven’t been back in a while is that getting there in the 1960s and early 1970s was a little on the pricey side. The Apollo missions
clocked in at just over $25 billion, or about $150 billion adjusted for inflation. That may not sound so bad in an age of multi-trillion dollar federal budgets, but it’s a really huge chunk of change.
Following the cancellation of additional Apollo missions due to budget constraints
, NASA redirected its efforts toward semi-reusable space shuttles (which can’t reach beyond low-Earth orbit) and Earth-orbit space stations (first Skylab and then the International Space Station). In 1990, NASA and the European Space Agency launched the Hubble Space Telescope
into orbit, allowing scientists to peer more deeply into the mysteries of space without the distorting effects of Earth’s atmosphere getting in the way.
As of today, no one has returned to the surface of our lone satellite since December, 1972.
In recent years, NASA has begun making plans to return to the moon’s surface by the year 2020—and not just to collect rocks and hit a few golf balls around, either. The plan involves building a lunar outpost and having astronauts live on the moon for months at a time. But with “trillion dollar federal budget deficits,” reports Kenneth Chang recently in The New York Times
, “there is some question whether the lunar designs that NASA has drawn up over the past five years will be built.” The spending allocated to human exploration between 2011 and 2013
in President Obama’s proposed budget “was several billion dollars less than what President Bush proposed last year,” essentially cutting the funds to turn ship concepts into “detailed designs and real spacecraft.”
The X Factor
If it turns out the U.S. government cannot afford to fund NASA’s ambitious plans, and if no other governments pick up the slack, does that mean it will be another generation before we make it back to the moon? After all, if it’s too expensive for governments, it is surely too expensive for private enterprise, right?
Enter the X Prize Foundation. In 1996, Dr. Peter Diamandis launched the first X Prize (later named the Ansari X Prize
) to encourage the development of private spaceflight. Diamandis was inspired by reading about the 1927 Orteig Prize, won by Charles Lindbergh when he became the first person to fly from New York to Paris non-stop. The $10-million Ansari X Prize was awarded in October 2004 after privately-built SpaceShipOne carried three people 100 km (62 miles) above the Earth’s surface twice within a two-week period. Twenty-six teams from seven nations spent over $100 million combined in their attempts to win the prize, and more than $1.5 billion have since been spent supporting the hitherto nonexistent private spaceflight industry. A $10-million prize was therefore leveraged into $100 million and then $1.5 billion, demonstrating the immense potential of competition to inspire great achievement.
Granted, reaching a height of 100 km above the Earth’s surface is one thing; getting to the moon is quite another. Still, riding high on its first success, the X Prize Foundation has now launched the $30-million Google Lunar X Prize
to “safely land a robot on the surface of the Moon, travel 500 meters over the lunar surface, and send images and data back to the Earth.” Nineteen teams are currently vying for this prize and the bragging rights that go along with it. Clearly, this is not your father’s space race.
What the Future Holds
The future of space travel is private. As Ed Hudgins has written
, “Governments can achieve certain limited, defined, short-term goals—for example, building the atomic bomb or sending humans to the moon—though usually at very high costs to the taxpayer. But they simply can’t commercialize goods and services—that is, bring costs down and quality up, and make them available to everyone.” Private firms, however, competing among themselves for market share, are excellent at doing just that. They did it for aviation following Lindbergh’s historic flight, and they will do it for space travel too now that the X Prize Foundation has broken the government’s grip on the sector.
With the knowledge gained in competing for the Google Lunar X Prize, safe and affordable travel to and colonization of the moon will be one giant leap closer to realization. With the way forward cleared of bureaucratic obstacles—with human ingenuity and courage truly unleashed—it is only a matter of time before the number of people to have walked our moon’s cratered surface far exceeds the current dozen.