A $2 Billion Prize Will Develop the Moon for Less Money Than Waiting on NASA | Opinion

On Tuesday, Elon Musk said our $2 billion moon prize plan "is a great idea."

According to CNET.com's coverage, "SpaceX or Blue Origin could beat NASA to the moon—especially with a boost from the US government."

We may be able to develop the moon and then use it as a developed site to leap on to Mars, for much less time and money than anyone is currently planning.

President Donald Trump has proposed a remarkably bold Moon-Mars Development Project with a goal of landing Americans on the moon in 2024 and Mars by 2034. He has also made the bold commitment that this is not going to be an exploratory visit but rather a settlement—first on the moon and then moving on to Mars once the moon is developed.

The president has proposed a program that will take humans off planet Earth permanently for the first time in history. For the rest of time, this will be a new beginning.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine is working diligently to reform the massive bureaucracy, which has a long history of cost overruns and delayed projects. Just to set the stage for proposing a bold alternative parallel (not a replacement but an insurance policy), consider the following facts.

Under NASA management, three major programs have huge records of delays and cost overruns.

The James Webb telescope was announced in 2002 as a $1.6 billion program proposed to be launched in 2011. It is now projected to cost more than $8 billion. (Congress capped it at $8 billion, but it is clear it will take more and may launch almost a decade late.)

The Orion Crew Module began development under the Constellation Program in 2005. In 2015, NASA proposed it would cost $6.768 billion through the first two flights. As of now, Congress has appropriated $16.59 billion to the program, and it is still having development challenges.

The Space Launch System is the largest rocket ever built (or about to be built). Announced in 2014, it was to cost $8.8 billion (ground system and vehicle) and would launch in 2018. Today, the SLS is going to cost at least $23.2 billion if you go back to its origins in the Constellation Program or $19.4 billion since Constellation was canceled.

NASA refuses to estimate the cost per flight of the SLS system, but Ars Technica reported in December 2017: "While NASA has not released per-flight estimates of the expendable SLS rocket's cost, conservative estimates peg it at $1.5 to $2.5 billion per launch. The cost is so high that it effectively precludes more than one to two SLS launches per year."

Given the delays and the overruns in NASA-run big systems, it would be prudent to seek an alternative strategy if we are to meet Trump's timeline.

To be clear: Our proposal does not suggest canceling any current proposal.

It does suggest that for the cost of one—or at most two—SLS launches, it may be possible to incentivize a competition to land on and start developing the moon in less time and for less money.

It is based on the principle of paying only for the achievement. If no one is able to reach the moon and begin developing it, then the taxpayer would not pay a cent.

Prizes have a great history of incentivizing dramatic change. Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic alone in 1927 to win the $25,000 Ortieg Prize. The Ansari X Prize for Suborbital Spaceflight put up $10 million and generated more than $100 million in investments by competitors. The late Paul Allen, the winner, invested $19.5 million to win a $10 million prize (and got his money back through licensing his innovations). One of the fruits of the X-Prize, Spaceport America in New Mexico, has just begun operations. Prizes often generate ten times the investment the prize itself is worth.

A number of us have been working on prizes for lunar development (for an illustrated outline of possibilities that currently exist or are in development, go to Gingrich360.com for a paper inspired by Lieutenant General Steve Kwast and his team). We believe that a prize open to American companies and American teams would attract a lot of talent and private investment. We also believe that such competitive innovation and entrepreneurship will create new assets and capabilities for the emerging Space Force.

There are three big changes from the world of 1961 when President John F. Kennedy had to rely on government to get to the moon.

First, there are a number of billionaires who are prepared to spend their own money (it is estimated Jeff Bezos spends $1 billion or more a year personally on Blue Origin). If there was government encouragement and a government prize, then Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Sir Richard Branson, Robert Bigelow and a host of others might well jump into the competition. Allen was busy developing space capabilities, and his estate might be willing to continue in his memory.

Second, there are a number of private companies with increasingly good records of launches with consistent success.

Third, from reusable rockets to very large self-evolving space systems to 3D-printed rockets and space machinery, there are an astonishing range of smart innovators and entrepreneurs developing better ways to achieve goals in space.

If someone gets to the moon and starts developing it before NASA, then the savings on SLS launches alone would pay many times the cost of the prize.

This proposal in effect creates an American space race of great potential to be cheaper and faster than traditional approaches.

Elon Musk
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk speaks at a press conference on September 17, 2018, in Hawthorne, California. Mario Tama/Getty

KEY PRINCIPLES

Congress and the NASA and Federal Aviation Administration bureaucracies would have every interest in regulating and micromanaging the prize system so it fails.

If the Wright Brothers (who had 500 failures before successfully flying) had been forced to work with federal bureaucracy, or under congressional oversight, we would all still be on trains.

The prize should be defined in outcomes—not processes. Whoever gets to the moon and begins developing it first wins.

How they get to the moon, what kind of equipment they use and what risks they are willing to take should all be left up to the entrepreneurs.

A Moon-Mars Development Prize Commission should be made up of experienced engineers and entrepreneurs (Burt Rutan would be an example).

It should establish a lean reporting system that has maximum transparency and is focused on outcomes.

NASA, the FAA, the Department of Defense and other government agencies should be instructed to offer maximum cooperation with minimum costs.

One agency—and one agency only—possibly the space office at the Department of Commerce, should be the point of contact.

The National Space Council should establish a liaison with every entrant and should be alert to the need to cut government red tape and keep the competition on track.

A smaller, second-place prize should also be created for the second entity to achieve the goals. This will ensure that private investors are comfortable with the risk equation, that nobody will compromise safety in their rush to win, and that the U.S. has fully redundant access to lunar territory. This redundancy is required to make our presence there sustainable (a key requirement of the president's Space Policy Directive and a national imperative given China's aggressive territorial ambitions). Experience with previous space systems, such as the Space Shuttle, has shown that reliance on any one system, with single points of failure, is an unsustainable model.

This prize approach will galvanize public attention and attract a lot of new energy and resources.

If it works, it will save an amazing amount of money and time that can then be invested in developing Mars.

Former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Newt Gingrich is the chairman of Gingrich 360, the host of the Newt's World podcast and author of the New York Times best-sellers Understanding Trump and Trump's America.

Steve Kwast is a lieutenant general in the U.S. Air Force with extensive combat and command experience at every level. He has a degree in astronautical engineering from the United States Air Force Academy, and experience in strategy, international affairs and national security. He is a graduate of Harvard's Kennedy School of government in public policy.

Congressman Bob Walker is the former chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. He is the CEO of MoonWalker Associates, a space and technology advocacy company.

Greg Autry, Ph.D., directs the Southern California Commercial Spaceflight Initiative at USC and is vice president of space development with the National Space Society. He served on the Agency Review Team and as White House liaison at NASA.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.

A $2 Billion Prize Will Develop the Moon for Less Money Than Waiting on NASA | Opinion | Opinion