The Trump administration is now off and running with a plan for creating what it calls a “Lunar Orbiting Platform–Gateway” (LOP-G) as the next decade’s project for NASA’s human-spaceflight program. In addition to providing an awkward acronym, the name is inaccurate. It should be called the Lunar Orbit Tollbooth.
To understand why the LOP-G is actually a tollbooth, consider the following business proposition: You are offered a chance to lease an office in Saskatoon. The office has a nice window from which you can see the Moon, and full Internet access, allowing you to surf the Web or send emails to anyone you like. So far, so good. But here’s the catch: It’s a 30-year lease at $100,000 per month, you need to spend at least one month a year there, and whenever you want to take a trip from your home to anywhere else in the world, you must stop in Saskatoon to pass through it.
This is essentially what is being offered to the taxpayers on the proposed lunar-orbit tollbooth, with the primary difference being that the LOP-G deal is worse, because in addition to having to rent it and use it, they will also be forced to pay for building it.
To be clear, the LOP-G is useless. We do not need a lunar-orbiting station to go to the Moon. We do not need such a station to go to Mars. We do not need it to go to near-Earth asteroids. We do not need it to go anywhere. However, if it is built, missions going to any of these destinations will be forced to use it to make it appear useful, and this will add to the propulsion requirements, complexity, cost, risk, and time of all such missions.
Indeed, NASA is now even talking about requiring the robotic Mars Sample Return mission to deliver its samples to LOP-G, rather than the Earth. This will not only greatly increase the cost and difficulty of the sample-return mission, it will destroy most of its value, as instead of being studied by thousands of well-qualified university scientists in well-equipped labs, the samples would have to be examined by a few astronauts lacking the necessary expertise, instruments, or time to do the job right.
The cost of the LOP-G is out of sight. Sending its first four modules to lunar orbit will require four launches of the Space Launch System (SLS), funded at $2.5 billion per year, over the next eight years. That’s $20 billion just to transport the initial set of tollbooth modules. The modules themselves will undoubtedly cost at least that much again. Then the plan calls for using it one month per year, for the indefinite future, which will cost at least $4 billion a year (when costs for the Orion capsules such mission will use are factored in), creating a financial sinkhole that will cripple NASA for decades.
In short, the LOP-G program is not a proposal to create an asset. It is a proposal to create an entitlement.
For a fraction of the cost of LOP-G, NASA could build and launch dozens of space telescopes or planetary rovers. When NASA spends its money for such purposes, it produces a great science return. But the LOP-G is clearly not a purpose-driven program. It is a vendor-driven program. It is not a legitimate proposal to spend money to do something. Rather it is a proposal to do something in order to spend money. That is no way to run a space program, a business, or anything else.
If NASA wants to send people to the Moon, as the Trump administration claims that it does, another approach is required. In the first place, going to the Moon requires a lunar lander, which NASA is not building, as opposed to an orbiting tollbooth, which it is. If NASA simply spent some of the gateway funds on developing a lander, it would be at least acting rationally.
But there is a better way to proceed. Instead of launching a program to build a lander, NASA should put out a request for bids for services, such as delivering payloads to the lunar surface, providing habitation and power on the Moon, and flying astronauts to the lunar surface and back. Then award contracts for such services to the most competitive bids. This is the very successful approach that former NASA administrator Mike Griffin took in setting up the Commercial Off the Self (COTS) program for delivering cargo to the International Space Station, resulting in the rapid creation and deployment of the Dragon/Falcon transportation service at a tiny fraction of the cost to taxpayers of the in-house Orion/SLS system, which has yet to fly.
By employing a COTS-type procurement for services to establish and run a lunar base, NASA could have a such base up and running in much less time and for a small fraction of the cash that would otherwise be wasted on LOP-G. Not only that, but in doing so, it would establish a method of operation that could get Americans to Mars in less than a decade.
Americans want and deserve a space program that is really opening up new frontiers on new worlds. NASA could make that a reality. But to do so, it will need to insist that its human-spaceflight program be purpose-driven, not vendor-driven.
Canceling the lunar-orbit tollbooth would be an excellent first step.