When Will Regular People Be Able to Visit the Moon?
The first thing to understand about predictions for future events in space is that they’re never right and usually far too optimistic! Questions like this were being asked in the 1950s, with some claiming that regular lunar visits were just around the corner and would certainly be happening by the end of the century—the 20th century. Unfortunately, and to reference a commonly heard refrain, space is hard. And expensive.
First, for the good news: trips to the moon can be done. The technology, the capability to go to the moon, was proven by the Apollo program. It doesn’t require any new inventions, or a radical new technology. What it does require is money and commitment. While large, developed states have the money, they have lacked the commitment since the 1960s. On the other hand, private industry has generally lacked the money. Today’s developments in the commercial space industry are starting to upend this, however.
One of the most significant factors in cost is launch. It costs a lot of money to launch whatever spacecraft you want to take to the moon. Fortunately, the cost of launch is coming down because of the development of reusable launch vehicles. As is often pointed out, flying on an airplane would also be expensive if you had to throw away the plane every time you used it. Understanding this, companies like SpaceX have been working towards reusable launch vehicles that can be reflown in a short period of time. The space shuttle was only partially reusable and required significant amounts of time between flights to get it ready for the next one. SpaceX’s Falcon 9, on the other hand, is showing that a launcher can be mostly reusable and refurbished very quickly, sometimes in as little as 40 days. This drastically reduces the costs of getting to orbit, putting things like trips to the moon more firmly in the realm of the possible for a private company.
So, for the bad news: even with launch costs coming down, it’s still really expensive and really dangerous. For the foreseeable future, the only people who will be going to the moon will be state-backed astronauts or wealthy tourists who have the millions of dollars it’s likely to still cost. Theoretically, these types of trips would not only demonstrate the safety and reliability of transportation to and from the lunar surface, but give companies and countries a reason to more fully develop lunar bases. It would probably be only after these bases were developed and regular trips between the Earth and the moon were occurring that regular people would be able to hop a ride without taking out a second mortgage.
So when might this be? If we continue at our current rate of progress, it might be the end of the 21st century at the earliest. This is a mighty big “if,” though. While there is pressure for countries to undertake lunar programs right now, there’s no guarantee it will be sustained. This is exactly what happened after the Apollo program. Once America got there, support, which had already been dropping, fell even more precipitously. This could happen again. Or countries and companies might find no reason to stay on the moon, especially if they could go to Mars instead. On the other hand, if valuable resources are found on the moon (for instance, He3 [helium-3]) or other compelling rationales are found to sustain lunar exploration, the timeline might be sped up. A lot of this progress depends on public opinion and/or commercial demand, both forces which are historically finicky.
Bottom line: while I would jump at the first opportunity to do so, I don’t think I’ll be going to the Moon in my lifetime. It might be in the realm of the possible for my nieces and nephews, but most likely it will be the generation after that… if all goes well.