During 2020 campaign speeches, President Donald Trump regularly touches on the theme of commercial space. Trump often says he likes that Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and other billionaires who are investing in aerospace are building reusable rockets and paying NASA rent to use the agency’s facilities.
Now, some advisers are quietly urging the president to take his enthusiasm for commercial space and entrepreneurs a step further—by creating a prize for whoever lands humans on the Moon. The effort, led by former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, was first reported by Politico. It would award a $2 billion prize to the first company to land humans on the Moon, and the winner would probably be Musk or Bezos.
NASA, of course, already has its own Moon plan named the Artemis Program. Under this plan, the space agency would use its own rocket (the Space Launch System) and spacecraft (Orion) as vehicles to put two humans onto the lunar surface by 2024. NASA has not specified how much accelerating a human return to the Moon will cost, but the price tag will likely be $6 billion to $8 billion a year, on top of the agency’s existing budget.
The $2 billion contest would not supplant the Artemis Program, said University of Southern California professor Greg Autry, who served on Trump’s NASA transition team in 2017. Autry helped conceive of the idea and says the contest would be a back-up plan. In an interview with Ars, Autry said that, if NASA is not interested in funding this, then another US agency (such as the Department of Commerce) might be.
Incentive for investment
Although $2 billion is not enough money for either Musk’s SpaceX or Bezos’ Blue Origin to land humans on the Moon, it represents a significant start. (Prof. Autry has argued for a total prize pool of $5 billion, with $3 billion going to the first company to reach the Moon, while $2 billion serves as a back-up prize.) More importantly, such a prize would engender confidence in potential investors in SpaceX and Blue Origin.
Independently of NASA, and with private funding, both companies are working on technology that would enable a human return to the Moon at a much lower cost than NASA’s traditional, linear approach toward a 2024 landing. SpaceX is building a large spacecraft, Starship, and a Super Heavy rocket. And Blue Origin has its New Glenn rocket and Blue Moon lander vehicles. Each would like to partner with NASA, both for funding and the agency’s expertise in human spaceflight and knowledge of the Moon.
Trump might see the prize as a relatively low-cost way to achieve NASA’s intermediate goal of a Moon landing while freeing up the space agency to pivot toward his preferred destination, Mars. “Some day soon, American astronauts will plant the Stars and Stripes on the surface of Mars,” Trump said recently during a speech that ignored the Moon.
Of course, while the president can propose new programs, Congress must fund them. At least on the surface, both the US House and Senate seem to much prefer NASA’s existing programs, which are carefully divvied by Congress members across their districts and among favored contractors.