FAA's Nield Endorses Woerner's Moon Village, But With Commercial Partners Too

FAA's Nield Endorses Woerner's Moon Village, But With Commercial Partners Too

The head of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA’s) commercial space office, George Nield, endorsed the Moon village concept espoused by European Space Agency (ESA) Director General Johann-Dietrich Woerner, but called for inclusion of the commercial sector, not only governments, in building and operating it.

Nield spoke at the October 21 meeting of the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC), which advises his office.  Noting that he had just returned from the International Astronautical Congress in Jerusalem, Nield quickly summarized a panel discussion among the heads of a number of space agencies represented there.  Woerner was one of them.  He became ESA DG on July 1 after serving as the head of Germany’s space agency, DLR.

Woerner has been advocating for construction of a village — Lunarville — on the far side of the Moon where telescopes emplaced there would be protected from the light and noise of Earth.  The concept envisions use of inflatable modules and 3D printing to build additional infrastructure using lunar resources — called In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU). Crops would be grown in greenhouses to support researchers rotating on regular schedules. 

The idea is not new, but having a champion at the head of ESA is.   He sees it as a successor to the International Space Station (ISS) and, like ISS, built as an international collaborative endeavor.

President Obama decided in 2010 that the United States will not return astronauts to the lunar surface.  Instead, he directed NASA to send them to an asteroid as a step towards eventual human missions to Mars.  NASA has developed a step-wise approach where U.S. spacecraft will operate near the Moon (in “cis-lunar space”), but not go down to the surface.  However, NASA officials are strongly encouraging other countries to pursue lunar surface operations, especially ISRU, which could have advantages for achieving the humans-to-Mars goal.  The United States could partner with these other countries, providing transportation to lunar orbit with the Space Launch System, for example.

Nield, who heads FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST), said he was “particularly impressed” with Woerner’s vision, especially since it allows countries to participate “as much or as little” as they wish and minimizes the need for a top-down management structure where one country specifies the architecture and is “calling all the shots.”  However, he wanted to offer a “modest suggestion” — open it up to commercial entities. 

Calling commercial opportunities “limitless,” he offered examples ranging from habitats and hotels to commercial electrical power stations (using solar arrays) to propellant depots to food production to rocket-powered lunar orbit/surface shuttle buses to rovers for getting around on the lunar surface — joking that it is too early to tell if the latter will be Yellow Cab or Uber.  “Private industry has the potential to play an important role and it need not be exclusively as a government contractor,” he enthused.

Later Nield also lamented that no U.S. government agency has yet been assigned the task of authorizing or supervising such commercial activities.   Article VI of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty requires that “activities of non-governmental entities in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall require authorization and continuing supervision” by the relevant State party to the treaty.   Some in the commercial space sector argue that AST’s responsibilities should be expanded to include that role.  Currently it is limited to facilitating and regulating commercial launches to and reentries from space.   Others think the Department of Commerce’s Office of Space Commercialization would be a better fit.

Nield also pointed out that his office’s resources are quite constrained in handling its existing responsibilities.   President Obama is requesting a $1.5 million increase for AST — from $16.605 million to $18.114 million — in FY2016, but Congress has not been enthusiastic.  The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently said that AST may indeed need more money, but does a poor job of justifying it.   In any case, AST like the rest of the government is currently operating under a Continuing Resolution (CR) that holds the office to its FY2015 spending level.

At the very end, COMSTAC members debated whether they should issue a finding, observation or recommendation about the potential role of the commercial sector in a lunar village asking for AST to engage with ESA to refine ideas.  They decided to ask COMSTAC’s  International Space Policy working group to draft something for future discussion.

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