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“If you would’ve told me in 1972 that we wouldn’t be back to the moon for 50 years,” says Jack Burns, a professor of astrophysics at CU Boulder, “I would have said you are full of you-know-what.” Burns has a special interest in moon landings beyond being a child of the Apollo age. He’s director of the Network for Exploration and Space Science, a multiuniversity organization dedicated to developing advanced science on the moon.
Burns also served on former President Donald Trump’s NASA transition team, which laid the groundwork for Artemis, the NASA mission that aims to not only return astronauts to Earth’s only natural satellite but also eventually establish long-term habitation there. “I’ve been working on this for 38 years,” he says. “This is the third iteration of us going back to the moon, but it looks like this one is actually going to stick.” In fact, NASA hopes for boots on the ground—including the first woman and first person of color—starting in 2025.
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What took so long? It’s not just delays and red tape, although there’s been plenty of both. We simply didn’t have the means until recently, Burns says. Apollo-era technology barely let us poke our heads around, and it’s only in the past few years, thanks in large part to the NewSpace economy, that we’ve developed the capability to live and work on the moon, which gives us more reason to return than simply taking a few small steps.
NASA isn’t the only agency planning to shop for prime lunar real estate. The Chinese government says it could land its own astronauts by 2030. Plus, plenty of private companies have their sights set on unmanned operations ranging from mining water to testing communications networks.
This renewed excitement could jump-start what industry insiders call the cislunar economy. “It’s beyond just visiting for visiting’s sake. It’s looking at how you can leverage resources,” says Vicky Lea, director of aerospace and aviation for the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation (EDC). “It combines space exploration with commercial opportunity.” More than 180 Colorado companies have a hand in Artemis, and while it’s practically impossible to know how many are working on private commercial missions, a few locals are playing key roles in our return to the moon.
Project: Orion spacecraft
Lockheed Martin Space designed the crew capsule for Orion, America’s new ride to the moon, which is 30 percent bigger than Apollo, fits four, features a unisex toilet and a radiation shelter, and could even include a specialized version of Amazon’s Alexa for voice-accessible flight data.
Orion won’t land directly on the surface. Instead, it will dock in lunar orbit with Gateway, an outpost that will serve as a communication hub and staging area for surface exploration. Westminster-based Maxar is building a unique propulsion unit for the station that uses electricity to accelerate jets of ionized atoms as opposed to traditional chemical propellants.
Project: Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE)
Gateway will circle just 1,000 miles above the moon’s south pole before swinging more than 40,000 miles above the north pole and back again. The unique vertical orbit will provide unobstructed views of—and communications with—Earth and should require minimal energy to maintain. But to make sure, NASA contracted with Westminster’s Advanced Space, an astrodynamics firm specializing in designing orbits, to test it with this microwave-oven-size satellite.
Lockheed Martin Space versus Lunar Outpost
Project: Moon buggy 2.0
Eventually, NASA plans to establish a basecamp near the moon’s south pole, and once it does, it’s going to need some wheels. To that end, it put out a call for candidates last year, spurring Lockheed to pair up with General Motors to compete against other teams, including partners Northrop Grumman and Lunar Outpost, a space robotics startup in Golden. The requirements? An electric moon buggy capable of carrying 1,764 pounds of payload 12 miles on a single charge across the moon’s pockmarked polar region. Oh, and it has to be drivable by remote control, too.
Lunar Outpost’s The Price Is Right bid for a NASA contract will establish how we buy and sell resources in space.
In December 2020, Golden-based Lunar Outpost made national headlines for what seemed like a really, really bad business deal. NASA announced it had signed four commercial contracts to collect moon dust from the lunar surface, but where the other three agreements were for between $5,000 and $15,000—already paltry amounts—Lunar Outpost bid a single dollar. “That was probably the smartest marketing move we’ve ever done, because the story got picked up all over,” says co-founder and COO Julian Cyrus. “The dollar isn’t really anything, but it is establishing the legal and procedural framework for purchasing space resources.” Which was NASA’s plan all along.
Still, it currently costs more than $1 million per kilogram (that’s 2.2 pounds for us Americans) to land on the moon, so Lunar Outpost paired the resource-collection mission with another it already had in the works—one that pays a lot better. Its Mobile Autonomous Prospecting Platform (MAPP), a rover the size of a small dog, could touch down near the moon’s south pole as early as this winter to help test a 4G/LTE communications network. And because it’s a private mission instead of a public one, Lunar Outpost can make money on the side by selling any valuable data it collects to third parties—especially companies interested in following in MAPP’s wheel prints and collecting lunar resources. That will be an essential step for future exploration, Cyrus says. “Throughout human history, if you want to explore a new area, you don’t bring everything with you,” he says. “You have to live off the land, and it’s going to be the same in space.”