Competition between privately funded space launchers is set to produce winners that are much better than any single NASA solution. We should use the same approach to building the moon colony.
Bert Rutan's sub-orbital SpaceShip Two is planned to start carrying Virgin Galactic passengers next year, while Geoff Bezos' Blue Origin vehicle may be available commercially in 2010. They're quite different designs - one is an air launched like the Bell X1, while the other is a ground-launched vehicle straight out of 1950s SciFi magazine.
Plus there are another 10 private space programs, using yet more design approaches and technologies. Engineering is like any other human endeavor - competition and diversity yield the best solution. So we can be confident that low cost sub-orbital and orbital launchers are just around the corner.
Meanwhile NASA is planning a permanent moon base by 2024, so here's an excellent suggestion from the WSJ ($): S
Say NASA believes it can build a permanent moonbase for $100 billion in today's dollars. Why not take half of that and offer it as a bounty to the first private company to build the station and man it.A commercially viable and permanent moon base would be an historic step in humanity's development, and would underpin US strength. So I hope the president can devote time and energy to getting the moon base done right - if nothing else, having the first off-planet human settlement named after him would be a splendid legacy!
A prize in the neighborhood of $50 billion is bound to attract plenty of interest -- and that number is probably much less than a realistic guess of what it would cost NASA in the end. The taxpayer would save 50% of NASA's cost to build the base, and the result would be much more likely to be attractive to the private interests that NASA wants to draw to the project.
It's an open question whether a moon base is most valuable for mining, tourism, science or some combination of the three. A private competition along the lines of the Ansari X prize for private space travel would have the added benefit of helping to sort those questions out without prejudging the outcome. So back to the moon. But let private speculators figure out the best way to get it done.