CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — If President Donald Trump is serious about making an imprint on U.S. human space exploration during his first, or possible second, term in office, space habitat developer Robert Bigelow has a suggestion: Partner with commercial companies to gain a toehold on the moon.
The billionaire founder of Las Vegas-based Bigelow Aerospace pitched the idea of a public-private lunar depot to members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which held a webcast hearing Wednesday (April 26) about how to bolster U.S. space business.
"If [the project is] initiated soon, I believe that Bigelow Aerospace and [other] companies could provide a lunar depot … that would enable NASA and commercial entities access to the moon and cislunar space in a four-year program," Bigelow said, emphasizing the time frame. ("Cislunar" refers to the region between Earth and the moon.) [Bigelow Aerospace's Inflatable Space Station Idea (Photos)]
The Trump administration has made no secret about wanting to put its mark on NASA's human space-exploration program. That program is currently focused on maintaining and commercializing the International Space Station and developing technologies to travel and live beyond Earth's orbit.
The administration in February asked NASA to consider putting a crew on the first test flight of the agency's heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket and Orion deep-space capsule. That mission, known as Exploration Mission-1, or EM-1, is currently targeted for late 2018, though experts say it's likely to be delayed.
The results of the NASA study have not yet been announced.
Trump himself pressed the issue of a human space milestone during a congratulatory call on Monday (April 24) to space station commander Peggy Whitson, who broke the record for the most time spent in space by a U.S. astronaut.
Trump asked Whitson when she thought NASA would be ready to fly a crew to Mars, and when she told him the 2030s, the president quipped, "Well, we want to try and do it during my first term, or at worst during my second term, so we'll have to speed that up a little bit, OK?"
A stepping-stone on the moon is "far and away the logical first choice," Bigelow said in a telephone interview with Space.com.
"I think Mars is premature, but the moon is a perfect testing ground for experiencing all kinds of things," Bigelow said. "This could be done by the end of [Trump's] first term. I feel more comfortable saying it could be done within four years from the time execution begins. It all depends on the politics and how long it takes for the government to get the machinery rolling."
With or without government support, Bigelow Aerospace intends to have two of its B330 expandable space habitats ready for launch by the end of 2020. A single 11,650-cubic-foot (330 cubic meters) B330 module has about as much pressurized volume as one-third of the space station.
The company already has built and flown three prototype habitats, including a module currently attached to the space station.
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Irene Klotz is a founding member and long-time contributor to Space.com. She concurrently spent 25 years as a wire service reporter and freelance writer, specializing in space exploration, planetary science, astronomy and the search for life beyond Earth. A graduate of Northwestern University, Irene currently serves as Space Editor for Aviation Week & Space Technology.