One Small Step Toward the $2 Billion Moon Prize | Opinion

America faces a deadline on the moon. China has stated its intention to colonize the moon, and they have landed two rovers on the lunar surface as precursors to human missions. They are positioning to assert operational privileges in crucial areas of the moon that may contain valuable water ice and minerals. Given their history of wildly aggressive territorial claims in the South China Sea and elsewhere, it is crucial that we land American infrastructure on the lunar surface in short order using commercial capabilities that exist now.

We are the $2 billion moon prize team. Individually, we've advocated for space development and have supported the current administration's bold return to the moon, both under NASA's Artemis program and through the commercial development of cis-lunar space. As a group, we have recently proposed a prize-driven approach to placing a full-time outpost on the lunar surface. That goal, of human beings residing full time on another world, remains our North Star. It's an important first step in getting to Mars and part of growing the robust space economy that will enable the colonizing of our solar system.

Every giant leap begins with one small step, and we've identified a step that is critical for lunar exploration and settlement. A step critical to our moon race with China. Of the many daunting challenges Luna presents to us, the biggest is surviving her 350-hour night. It is chilly, dark and devoid of solar electric power. Another challenge is communicating across the moon's hilly and crater-strewn terrain, where there is no atmosphere to reflect our radio transmissions, no network of cell towers or fiber cables to forward radio signals, and no satellite constellations to rely on. A third problem is simply knowing where you are. While GPS signals can be received on the moon, our current GPS system wasn't designed for use above the satellite constellation, and without an additional lunar reference point the existing GPS system isn't useful. Powerless, cold, deaf and lost is a poor condition for exploring and settling a new world, particularly if you're in a race with the Chinese.

The innovative Space Portal team at NASA's Ames Research Center has a singular solution for all these problems. Their Lunar Precursor proposal would deploy power-navigation-communications towers—power towers—on the surface of the moon before the arrival of the next generation of American lunar rovers and American explorers. These power towers would be deployed to the lunar surface using commercial launch systems and landers. The towers would generate and store solar power, providing thermal control and electricity for rovers and eventually humans during the long lunar nights. The power towers would also provide communications relays, and access to any one tower would be sufficient for a rover or explorer to obtain a GPS lock on its position.

The Ames Space Portal team has demonstrated that they can get these power towers made. This power tower proposal is part of a broader Lunar COTS proposal, modeled on the successful Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS), a program that has successfully taken 23 resupply cargos to the International Space Station. COTS was also the brain child of the Ames team and supported development of the SpaceX Dragon capsule, which has carried 18 cargos to the International Space Station, and the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, which has flown 76 times, as well as the Orbital ATK (Northrop Grumman) Antares and Cygnus rockets. COTS demonstrated that NASA, working with commercial partners under fixed price, Funded Space Act agreements, could develop as nimbly as Silicon Valley. In less than a decade and for just $800 million, the U.S. secured two new launch vehicles and two space capsules. These programs would have cost billions of dollars and taken years longer under a traditional NASA development approach.

Full moon
The last full moon of the decade hovers over Los Angeles on December 11. Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty

The Power Tower Lunar Precursor mission is cheap and fast, allowing NASA to literally put a stake in the ground in a couple of years for as little as $100 million. Putting that stake down is critical for domestic and global political reasons. Under the direction of Vice President Mike Pence, the Artemis program is aggressively targeting a 2024 moon landing. While the Orion capsule for the program is well on its way to readiness, the Space Launch System that will launch it was originally scheduled to loft it in 2015 has been subject to a steady stream of delays. The first test of that big rocket is currently scheduled for 2021. Any further slips threaten the vice president's 2024 goal. The initial Space Launch System and Orion flights will not reach the lunar surface. This makes it important to find an alternative way to land lunar hardware on the surface in a way that supports the eventual mission.

What's more, a program with hardware in place is very hard for Congress or a future administration to terminate. Functioning systems on the ground of the moon would establish an American operational presence in critical areas around the lunar poles, where the resources necessary to settlement have been detected. If we do not fly these precursor missions, we will surely find additional Chinese landers scattered across the most valuable locations when we are ready to deploy our human habitats and commercial developments. Ensuring that the moon's resources are available to free peoples from the U.S. and our international partners is worth this small investment in power towers. Let's go.

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. His latest book, Trump vs. China: Facing America's Greatest Threat, is out now.

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

Steve Kwast is a retired 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 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.

Howard Bloom, the author of seven books and founder and chair of the Space Development Steering Committee, has been called "next in a lineage of seminal thinkers that includes Newton, Darwin, Einstein [and] Freud," by Britain's Channel 4 TV.

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