Shoot the Moon


David Anderman, vice president of the National Space Society's Los Angeles chapter, wants to see flights into space become as common as flights across the country. But he knows that until the government gets out of the routine spaceflight business, his vision will remain the stuff of science fiction.

"What would American Airlines be like if it were run by the federal government?" he asks. "It would have four flights a year, and on the fifth flight there would be a crash."

In a step toward transferring routine spaceflight from the government to the private sector, Anderman has convinced several members of Congress that NASA should use a portion of its budget to purchase information about the moon from a private company. His proposed Lunar Resources Data Purchase Act—the "Back to the Moon Bill"—would instruct NASA to hire an outside contractor to map the shape and mineral content of the moon's surface. Apollo did some of this mapping but focused mainly on the equator. The contractor would retain the rights to any other information obtained on the mission.

Rep. Bob Walker (Pa.), the ranking Republican on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, has introduced a version of the Back to the Moon Bill as part of the Omnibus Space Commercialization Act of 1993. The relevant section requires that NASA buy data about the moon and other celestial bodies from the private sector "to the maximum extent possible." As currently worded, the bill does not mandate a specific appropriation. Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), Harris Fawell (R-Ill.), and Nick Smith (R-Mich.) are co-sponsors of the proposal.

NASA says it can get an unmanned spacecraft to the moon for about $125 million. Anderman's proposal, on the other hand, would place a $65-million cap on bids, and he expects companies to submit bids for as little as $40 million. John Pike, director of space policy for the Federation of American Scientists, says savings of 5 percent to 20 percent are more realistic, since NASA already contracts out for all but its administrative functions. But Torrance Johnson, senior scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, believes that a private company could achieve cost savings in the range that Anderman predicts.